Government out of touch on road pricing scheme

The shadow transport Chris Grayling explains the Conservatives are not opposed to a road pricing scheme in principle. But he argues such a scheme should not be forced on drivers at a national level, but instead should be a locally-driven targeted measure against specific congestion problems.

The online petition which said ‘no’ to the government’s national road pricing scheme had reached over 1.8 million signatures by the time it closed. When 1.8 million people sign up to a cause in Britain, they mean business. It is a sign of a government that has lost touch with the people that it took so long to get a response to the mounting protest.

The petitioners 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, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. 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 how on earth do you begin to enforce a scheme like this properly? We know already that the government’s databases are not 100 per cent accurate, in 2006 it was estimated that 2.19 million cars were untaxed alone.

From the government that brought us the junior doctors’ computer system, the mounting fiascos of ID Cards, the tax credit computer chaos and the Child Support Agency, we are promised the biggest computer project in history.

What is more there are ever-increasing rumours from the Treasury that Gordon Brown sees road pricing as an important way of raising future revenues. Road pricing could turn out to be the ultimate stealth tax.

No wonder there are protests.

But ministers seem set on doing it regardless. In December the roads minister, Stephen Ladyman, warned MPs: “There will be national road pricing. We have said that that will happen around the middle of the next decade.”

I want to make one point clear. 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. But it’s really important that national politicians 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.

It’s not as if there is an easy alternative to the car. Overcrowding on the railways gets worse and fares keep rising as ministers and rail companies try to use higher prices to keep overcrowding under control. Promised improvements rarely 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.

After ten years in Government, and all the promises on an integrated transport policy from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they seem to have run out of ideas. There’s just one left. Their national road pricing scheme.