As we near the general election, few politicians are willing to talk about road pricing – but do our creaking network and a fall in road taxes make such a scheme inevitable?
It might seem like a modern and radical solution to traffic congestion, pollution and falling fuel taxes, but road pricing is far from a new idea. If you happened to find yourself travelling between Babylon and Susa in 668 BC you’d pay a fee for using the road. Tolls to cross mountain passes were common in ancient Germany and also in India. In Britain, medieval road-keepers would charge what was known as “pavage” for upkeep and maintenance.
After a change in legislation in 1700, more than 400 Turnpike Trusts were formed in Britain to maintain the road links so vital to the industrial revolution. These helped finance the creation of routes such as Thomas Telford’s A5 from London to Holyhead, which has a toll house every five miles or so.
Eventually railways started to rival roads for freight traffic carriage and road tolls were seen as a brake on development and an inefficient way of maintaining and building new highways. In the UK the 1888 Local Government Act gave responsibility for roads to local authorities, and for the most part vehicle excise duty and fuel tax have funded the UK’s road system since.
At the last count there were 23 toll roads in the UK, of which 18 are river crossings including minor ones such as the tiny Whitchurch and Swinford toll bridges across the Thames. In more recent times, however, the UK has seen the inauguration M6 toll road around Birmingham in 2003 and congestion charges in London (2003) and Durham (2002).
Road pricing, as posited by the Rand Corporation in the US in 1949, was seen as a tool to manage commercial vehicle congestion. It’s been the idea that won’t go away as road congestion worsens.
Rush hours are getting longer and slower, and last year transport consultant Inrix published a report showing the average British driver spent 178 hours stuck in jams, costing each one £1,317 in lost work or leisure time, which annually loses the British economy £7.9 billion.
Partly in response, politicians, local authorities, economists, political think-tanks and motoring organisations have started to suggest road pricing as an alternative to rationing road space with congestion.
The latest suggestion is from the Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS), which last month called for the rapid adoption of road pricing to deal with traffic congestion and to compensate for an estimated £33 billion loss in fuel tax revenue to the Treasury as drivers switch to electric and hybrid cars.
Last May a very similar suggestion came from the Centre For London, a private- and public-supported ideas forum, which suggested that London should scrap the recently introduced ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) and central London Congestion Charge in favour of a road-pricing scheme, which would charge per mile according to levels of congestion and pollution as well as the vehicle’s emissions. It’s being taken seriously by Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, who is also considering banning parking spaces in new developments in the capital to discourage private car use.
So will we end up paying by the mile as we travel? The UK has a rocky path towards road pricing, starting with Reuben Smeed and his eponymous 1964 report. Smeed was a brilliant statistician and transport researcher who cut his teeth studying more effective tactics and strategy for Bomber Command during the Second World War. The Smeed Report looked at alternative ways of funding UK highways and recommended road pricing as a fair alternative to the road duties introduced in 1933-4 as part of the Salter Report and still in use today.
It was commissioned by the Ministry of Transport under the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, which shelved the report and even the more radical 1966 Labour government of Harold Wilson and his reforming transport minister Barbara Castle failed to adopt any of the Smeed Report recommendations.
For while road pricing has an economic simplicity beloved by academics, utopians and environmentalists, it is absolutely loathed by the public. Even the very pro-road-pricing Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank’s 2006 study Steering Through Change admitted that “despite a broad ‘elite’-level consensus on the principle of road pricing in the UK, public attitude arguably remains the key barrier to its introduction”. This is a land where politicians have to tread very carefully; road pricing is not a vote-winner.
So while various schemes have been adopted around the world, most notably in Singapore in 1975, pretty much all of the proposed UK full-scale road pricing schemes have been shot down.
Most notable among these was transport secretary Alistair Darling’s 2005 proposal masterminded by academic David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT). As an Edinburgh councillor, Darling had worked with Begg on a road pricing scheme for the centre of the Scottish capital. This ambitious and far-reaching scheme was bulldozed through on the basis of statistics, charts and a micro simulation software called Paramics, which sufficiently bamboozled local planning committees that they gave the go-ahead.
Introduced in 2004, the Edinburgh scheme was a disaster. Traffic was banned from the New Town and parts of the city became almost inaccessible, others were permanently gridlocked, with local pollution sky-rocketing and traders reporting a takings down by a third. Civil disobedience became the norm, with drivers simply ignoring street closures, and in November 2004 the council was forced to scrap the scheme and the signs and roadblocks were removed.
Despite this debacle, Darling and Begg set their sights higher. Begg compared the UK’s road management to “the last remnant of the Stalinist state” and averred that a road-pricing scheme would reduce traffic congestion by 44 per cent, although he later admitted that any congestion cut was more likely to be in the order of 20 to 30 per cent.
“I can see major stumbling blocks that would prevent governments adopting congestion charging,” he said, “but as congestion grows so too, I think, will the willingness of the public to look at what is seen as a radical solution.”
At heart the Begg/Darling plan was pure Adam Smith economics, proposing the allocation of scarce resources (uncongested road space) with price mechanism, so car drivers would pay a sliding scale of charges according to distance travelled and the level of traffic congestion.
Vehicle excise duty (VED) would be abolished, promised Begg (but not Darling), and fuel tax reduced to the European average. The scheme bubbled around the Labour government for a few years, even taken up by premier Tony Blair, but there was widespread opposition, accusations that it was a four-wheeled poll tax and an online petition with 1.8 million signatures.
Blair finally threw in the towel in 2007 when he admitted that introducing such a scheme would be “kamikaze politics”.
Yet the idea hasn’t gone away, mainly because of what usually turns out to be a prime mover in legislative impetus, money. Motoring taxes raise almost £40 billion a year in the UK, 70 per cent of it in fuel tax. In the last 19 years fuel duty has dropped from 2.2 per cent of gross domestic product to 1.3 per cent, which hasn’t been helped by the Government’s decision to freeze fuel duty. And, according to the IFS, under the existing fiscal arrangements, it will drop to zero as the government heads to “net zero carbon emissions” by 2050.
Yet have the jams and the lost revenue risen far enough for the British public to grudgingly accept pricing by the mile, as David Begg suggested they might? The Queen’s Highway is a peculiarly precious idea in the heart of the British voter; freedom of movement and association have been hard won in our society and are not easily or simply returned back to our masters.
There’s also a distinct lack of trust in politicians – and not just in Britain. In 2017, just as student transport planner Gergely Raccuja was being awarded the £¼ million Wolfson Economics Prize for his plan (very similar to Smeed and Begg’s ideas) for a road pricing scheme, regional elections in Norway were being successfully contested by the People’s Action – No To More Road Tolls party (FNB) after the Norwegian government sharply increased road tolls after promising not to do so.
While simply building more roads to solve congestion is a discredited policy, there are still important and unaddressed issues in all the road pricing proposals. The hardware and software required to monitor all UK traffic movements would be beyond more than about 10 companies in the world to provide, according to one expert we spoke to, who worked on the truck road pricing scheme in Germany.
Moreover the history of such large computerisation schemes has not been an unalloyed success in the UK; records at the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) are known to be flawed and Transport For London (TfL), which administers the London Congestion Zone, is still sending out penalty charge notices to drivers despite incontrovertible evidence that the charge was paid.
And while proponents of road pricing point out that mobile telephones, fitness trackers and even credit cards monitor our movements, there is a general unease with the idea of satellite or camera tracking of our every journey.
Road pricing has been likened to an Orwellian Big Brother scheme, especially after the revelations of Edward Snowdon and the like. Do we really want to establish such an overwhelming level of surveillance and control by governments and their agencies?
Nor do road pricing proponents have many answers to the almost inevitable rise in illegal, uninsured and unregistered cars, which would bypass a system policed by automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. And there also are societal concerns about the effect of road pricing on older and poorer folk, especially those living in rural areas (or without the benefits of an expense account) who might be priced and frightened off the roads, or the issue of “rat runs” on local roads to bypass congested (and expensive) motorways, where traffic might flow faster but accident dangers are greater.
It’s been a rocky road for road pricing in the UK and you’d be lucky to find a politician who would talk about it before the coming election, but our creaking road network and falling road taxes mean it’s a story that seems unlikely to go away.
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