A fair system of charging users for the road network would be to base it on the amount of wear and tear they put on the roads. Even better if it could take into account their relative social and economic costs too. If so, the charge should target the biggest vehicles and the ones which do the most mileage. For many years, a tax on petrol or diesel at source has managed to do just that – but not for much longer.
Electric vehicles, powered by batteries or fuel cells, will be hard to tax this way. A new system needs to be found to replace the £28 billion (plus VAT) which the government raises in fuel duty each year.
The solution will surely be road pricing, and we need to get used to the idea. Alternatives such as higher tax on energy in general, or hugely increased vehicle excise duty, come with obvious problems.
There are already 23 toll roads in the UK, 18 of which are river crossings. There’s also ‘congestion charging’, a type of road pricing which is supposed to deter traffic from congested areas at busy times. However, the only congestion charging schemes in the UK – Central London and a tiny one in Durham – are blunt instruments which operate from early until late. The idea has a few supporters in Cambridge, but there is political opposition from those who claim that it discourages the less well-off from driving, not those with the least need to drive.
A national road pricing system could eventually cover all roads at all times, although for off-peak use or little-used roads, the charges might be low or even zero. The technology and infrastucture required to track every vehicle’s movements (not to mention the civil liberties issues involved) will be very difficult. However, if the government is going to collect the revenue, it will have to be done on a co-ordinated national basis. And that’s another argument why it’s a dead-end for cities like Cambridge to go it alone on congestion charging for now.
There are some ideas which could be tested though. One is to have tolls for HGVs entering and leaving the city at busy times. Their numbers are surprisingly high, and their pollution, wear on the roads, and impact on congestion are much higher than cars. In other countries, restrictions on HGVs are more common. A charge which would remain affordable to HGV operators could deter unnecessary peak-time movements and raise a substantial amount of money from others. Worth a thought?
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 25 October 2017.