Has the time come for road charging?

National road pricing is still 10 years away and unless work starts soon, such a scheme will always be 10 years away remarked the Transport Secretary to his party conference.

These were not the words of Grant Shapps to Tory delegates earlier this month, but those of Labour’s Alistair Darling back in 2005, writes TP Editor Mike Walter.

Now, after a decade of limited discussion on the issue, the Transport Select Committee wants to start a national debate about road pricing. Could our renewed focus on the need to reduce carbon emissions mean we are now more willing to pay for the miles we drive? Or will the issue of road pricing prove as divisive as Brexit?

Fourteen years ago Edinburgh voted three to one against a road pricing proposal and it is 11 years since Manchester rejected a similar plan by an even larger majority. These schemes were drawn up as the Labour Government pursued the concept of nationwide road pricing, but the clear opposition at a local level made any country-wide proposal unrealistic.

Last week the Transport Select Committee chair Lilian Greenwood pointed out that much has changed in the decade since national road pricing was last on the agenda. We have become much more aware of the danger of air pollution and the problem of congestion, she writes, and the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Parliament in May requires a “serious response” in terms of how we manage our road network.

And then there is the issue of how Government will plug, as she puts it, the “looming fiscal black hole” if the £40Bn annual income from fuel and vehicle excise duties are likely to decline as the road transport fleet becomes greener.

So given that the need to address pollution, congestion and Government finances appear more pressing than ever before, it is surely only right that the issue of road pricing is once again brought centre stage. But two things will need to change.

First of all, the language used. We often talk about ‘road pricing’ or ‘congestion charging’ when discussing the issue, which can give the impression of an additional levy on the cost of vehicle ownership that will make motorists worse off.

But in many areas of society there is a growing trend to consume products ‘as a service’. Therefore the things you use (vehicles, technology – even clothes) are starting to be viewed not as something which is yours to own, but as something you pay for based on how much – or how many times – you make use of them.

Talking not of road pricing, but instead of some kind of ‘pay as you go motoring’ may help to nudge people towards being more mindful about the link between the cost of travel, where and how often they drive.

And then there is the wider point of asking people to vote on something which is different to what they know, and which they cannot see. Many people resist change. So rather than hold another referendum – asking people for their views on a new pricing scheme beforehand – how about ask people for their thoughts after a change is made?

Transport economist Paul Buchanan thinks so. “The one thing I would not do is to hold a public vote on the issue before it is introduced,” he told TP Weekly News shortly after the Committee announced its new plan for a national debate.

“The two referenda in Manchester and Edinburgh highlighted what drivers would have to pay, but the public didn’t believe in the predicted time savings, improved reliability and better public transport. So they thought they were simply voting to pay more to drive into the city centre.”

Instead, Paul prefers an approach previously used in the Swedish city of Stockholm, where a charging system was introduced and after several months the public was asked if they would like it to continue.

“Before the trial the public was strongly against,” he adds, “but once they had seen it in action their views changed and the trial was made permanent”.

So less of a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but more of a ‘let’s go with it for now’ and see how things pan out. Perhaps we should have adopted that approach for other big political questions of our time.