By Matthew Barrett
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The top story for a number of newspapers this morning is that reports suggest that George Osborne is considering introducing tolls on a number of existing major motorways in order to fund new road building.
"Aides to the chancellor" told the Financial Times (£) that the plan is "under consideration". However, the same newspaper reports that, whilst David Cameron is supportive of the idea, he will only want to implement it if he can neutralise the impact on motorists. The Guardian suggests "a cut in fuel duty and excise duty" for certain drivers could be the Government's remedy for any backlash against tolls.
The Daily Telegraph has more details of the proposals:
"Reforms that could give private investors control over Britain’s biggest roads will be included in the new policy agenda for the second half of the Coalition due next month… The private managers of the roads would then be allowed to levy tolls on any new capacity they provide, such as new lanes or bypasses. Existing roads that are “improved beyond recognition” by private managers could also be considered for charging, sources suggest."
Vehicle Excise Duty would also be reformed so that drivers would pay different rates of road tax depending on which roads they use; motorway users would pay more, and those who use A-roads would pay a little less. The Department for Transport says tolls would only be used "in very limited circumstances and only where schemes deliver new roads or transform an existing road literally beyond all recognition."
The Guardian makes a point of saying that "[t]he move would have the potential to trigger a major political backlash against some of the Conservative party's "middle England" core vote". I don't see why this should be true. Better-off Tories in "middle England" would face the same imposition as all other motorists. Indeed, given that working class drivers – who the Conservatives need to hold on to, and attract more of – would be hit proportionally harder, it's hard to see why core-vote Tories would be the only ones up in arms.
It seems a little simplistic to think that motorists could be satisfied with intricate tax benefits – and even a fuel duty cut would have less of a lasting impact than the visceral effect of having to pay every time you want to use a road you might have been using for years before tolls were introduced. Many motorists will also feel aggrieved at having to pay for existing roads which aren't terribly good as they are.
Toll roads will clearly have to be well thought out. It can work in some situations: the M6 toll is a perfect example: those who choose to pay the toll are rewarded with a much clearer road than those who take the option not to pay and who have to take a longer and busier route. A situation where there is no alternative, and toll booths simply slow the road up for everyone, or a situation where people travelling relatively short distances have to pay the toll, would have to be avoided.
After seeing months of Tory backbench campaigning for fairness for strivers and motorists, and for "white van conservatism", it seems paradoxical to be discussing toll roads. Labour MP John Spellar has tweeted this morning, calling the plan a "poll tax on wheels". This sounds like the kind of thing Ed Miliband would feature prominently in a campaign based on the cost of living, and the Coalition – if it decides to proceed with tolls – would have to be rather skilfull to avoid such a charge being made by Labour on a regular basis.