Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Road pricing - it's about trust, not transport

I've just had an email from the Prime Minister. This is because - and I don't mind admitting this - I'm one of the 1,800,597 people who have signed the petition against road pricing. This has been making waves in the media for the past few months, but on the off-chance that any of my fellow Lib Dems agree with me, it's too late to add your name. The petition's now closed.

Considerably more of my yellow-feathered colleagues will be wondering if I've flipped my lid, and joined the gas-guzzling motorist lobby. The other signatories, they'll argue, are simply after a licence to damage the environment for free, and no liberal has any business suporting them. But I assure you, I haven't got into bed with Jeremy Clarkson (although he does make very entertaining TV).

The stupid thing is, even though I've signed this petition, I think that road pricing is quite a good idea. Replacing flat-rate road tax with a scheme that takes distance into account is extremely clever. It's much fairer, it gives people a real incentive not to use their cars for pointlessly short journeys, and it penalises people for being irresponsible motorists, rather than just being motorists in general. More to the point, the maths suggests that it would do a very good job of cutting congestion.

So why am I joining the majority of sportscar drivers in this country in petitioning the PM? Simply because I don't trust him. I want him to scrap the road-pricing scheme, not because road pricing is bad, but because this particular scheme will be implemented by New Labour, and I cannot trust New Labour to do what they've promised.

By an accident of birth, I escaped the top-up fees that Labour promised not to introduce. By renewing my passport this year, I've bought myself a decade's freedom from the ID cards that Labour said would be completely voluntary. And when I go to the polls at the next general election, I'll be voting under the same rigged voting system that Mr Blair promised to replace in 1997.

So when he tells me that road pricing will simply be used to send everyone a bill at the end of each month, I get alarm bells in my head. The next time there's a black hole in Brown's budget, will I start getting speeding tickets in the post? Or more worryingly, if I'm ever suspected of a crime with political implications, will the press start to get anonymous briefings about where the Government thinks I might have driven? Access to tracking data from every car in the country is a huge amount of power, and it's not the sort of power I want our country's top brass to get their hands on.

This debacle isn't a matter of transport policy; it's a matter of trust. And on the last day of the road pricing petition, I have no regrets about my name being up there on the Number 10 website, however many 4x4 owners' are alongside it. Say yes to distance-related road tax, yes to real incentives for people to drive less - but for pity's sake, say no to a virtual Government monkey on my shoulder whenever I drive.


Tristan said...

You've hit the nail on the head.

That is exactly why I am opposed to these proposals.
Road Usage Charging is a sound economic idea, congestion costs us more than Stern's estimates of the costs of climate change, and here we can kill two birds with one stone.

This government however has shown itself to be untrustworthy and power grabbing and contemptuous of human rights and civil liberties. I don't trust them to do this without creating a database for tracking or just using it to top up the treasury's income a bit.

Biscit said...

I resisted signing the petition for the very reason of the screaming hysteria in the round robin.

I don't like being lied to in order to get my support.

Jonny Wright said...

Biscit, I didn't get the round robin, for some reason. I read about the petition in the news, and found it on the PM's site.

I take your point about the hysteria of the email (having just googled it) but I was voting on the petition itself, which just called on the Government to scrap their plans to introduce road pricing.

monsterravingloony said...

It's not so much about whether you can trust the government, more about whether you can trust each City's council to come up with a workable plan. Central money will be stumped up but there is going to be a lot of local autonomy on design and implementation.

Edinburgh messed their proposal up and had to withdraw it under protest.

Now Manchester have approved a scheme in principle to be funded by £1bn from central government, but they have not thought through their design.

What do you think will happen if you pick 15 trunk roads into the city, with 2 sensors along each route, and tell motorists they will be charged £3 to pass each sensor during their daily commute?

Let me tell you.

They will add it up and work out they will be paying about £1,500 a year extra, just for a less congested commute. They will think about public transport but that's a hassle and also expensive. Car sharing makes you too dependent on others.

So the answer is to have a good look at the map and plot a route that keeps you off the trunk roads at the points where there are sensors, or just off the motorways and trunk roads full stop.

The motorways will be deserted while cars pack the backstreets to get a free commute. Drivers will prefer to get up even earlier and sit in traffic jams in residential areas as they crawl to work rather than pay £1,500 they would rather put to a holiday or a new high def LCD TV.

This will never fly.

Yes, we do have a problem with congestion. Yes, we do need to do something about it. But we also have to design schemes which work as intended.

How often has legislation been proposed that ignores the boundless human capacity to find workarounds to their own advantage?