There has been some debate on this site about the Conservative Party’s views on road-pricing. Chris Grayling has drawn my attention to an eleven hundred word article that he penned for the Evening Standard on 13th February. The article pasted below – Listen To The Protest And Just Go Local – essentially says that the party is opposed to a national programme of road-pricing but in the spirit of the party’s new emphasis on localism, it supports the freedom of local government units to choose their own models – like Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge.
"Seven years ago Britain ground to a standstill as hauliers and motorists alike took to the streets to protest against the soaring cost of fuel. There’s never been an experience quite like it in Britain in peacetime. Shops emptied, services ground to a halt.
Today motorists are in a state of revolt again. There are groups organising against the proliferation of speed cameras – and arson attacks on the cameras themselves. There are motorists groups threatening to fight elections. There are campaigns in London against tougher parking schemes and bus lanes. And that’s before you get to the proliferation of road rage incidents, prompted by the frustration of worsening jams.
But it’s on the global superhighway that leads to the Downing Street website that things are really happening. Almost 1.5 million people have now added their names to an electronic petition to say ‘no’ to the Government’s plans for an all-singing, all-dancing national road pricing scheme. When that many people sign up to a cause in Britain, they mean business.
And they are absolutely right. The Government’s scheme is utterly unrealistic. It wants to charge every car in Britain – all 32 million of them – for every mile they travel on every road in the country, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I certainly don’t want to think that there’s a spy in the sky tracking me wherever I go. Do you?
But that’s just part of the problem. After they’ve tracked us, they will have to collate all the data, turn it into a bill, send it out, and collect the money. Every month, for 32 million cars.
And what about all those who buck the system, who drive unregistered cars? How on earth do you even start to enforce a scheme like this properly? The number of unregistered cars is rising. How many more unregistered cars would we have under road pricing?
From the Government that brought us the mounting fiascos of ID Cards and the NHS computer system, the tax credit computer chaos and the Child Support Agency, we are promised the biggest computer project in history. It would cost a fortune to run. And it would mean people in London and the South East paying much, much more to drive on the same roads they drive on today.
No wonder there are protests.
But Ministers seem set on doing it regardless. This week they published the next stage of their strategy – the rules for pilot projects that will pave the way for their planned national scheme.
In December, the Roads Minister Stephen Ladyman warned MPs that ‘There will be national road pricing. We have said that that will happen around the middle of the next decade’
And there are ever-increasing rumours from the Treasury that Gordon Brown sees road pricing as an important way of raising future revenues from the Government. When they first talked about road pricing, they also talked about cutting road fuel taxes at the same time. That’s now been forgotten. It looks as if the plan is to make road pricing the ultimate stealth tax.
There is general acceptance across the political spectrum that there will be some road charging in Britain in the future.
We will undoubtedly see some road charging schemes emerge locally, as a result of decision-making within an individual town or city. That’s what’s happened in London with the congestion charge. The Mayor’s scheme is subject still to vigorous debate in London. But it’s really important that national politicians do leave this kind of decision to be taken locally.
We already use road charges to pay for improvements – such as the M6 toll road and the Dartford Bridge. We will need to do more of that in the future. It’s not unreasonable to ask motorists to pay for something that makes their journey much easier.
But there is real anger among motorists about the grand scheme that the Government is planning. We do not need and do not want a national, spy-in-the sky, pay as you drive scheme.
And for many motorists that anger is just compounded by the Government’s failure to tackle some of the other real problems on our roads.
In Britain today, we have some two million rogue drivers operating outside the law, without tax, insurance, often even a driving licence – many on the streets of London. They are more likely to drink and drive, to commit other serious offences, be involved in serious accidents. They offend again and again, and all too often just seem to get away with it.
But in too many places speed cameras are being used as the main way to police our roads. But cameras don’t catch uninsured drivers and they can’t breathalyse drunk drivers. The real offenders just keep on getting away with it.
So, frustrated by ineffective law enforcement, and facing the prospect of paying much more to drive right across the country, today’s motorist is left to fume as he or she sits in yet another traffic jam trying to get to work.
It’s not as if there is an easy alternative to the car. The trains are already in a state of mounting crisis, with overcrowding becoming endemic on many routes. Fares keep going up and up as Ministers and rail companies try to use higher prices to keep that overcrowding under control. Promised improvements never seem to actually happen.
Planning to introduce a national road pricing scheme while failing to get to grips with overcrowding on rail is a sign of a Government that is completely out of touch with the reality of transport in Britain today.
In any case, the truth is that the choice between road and rail is a false one. We will need to improve both for the future. We will need greener roads, with lower emission cars – but the roads will be a vital part of the future of London and Britain. And without a better rail system, London will be stifled.
After 10 years in Government, and after all the promises on transport from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they seem to have run out of ideas. There’s just one left. Their national road pricing scheme.
But 1.5 million people, and rising, have said no to those plans. It’s hard to imagine the revolt against road pricing ending up as a new fuel tax protest: the era of paying as you drive is still too distant. But the Government ignores the growing anger of motorists at its peril."