On Newsnight earlier this week Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Shadow Transport Secretary, supported road pricing. I can understand why, it does seem a good way of dissuading people from using their cars, which is something that Lib Dems often want to support. So I thought I’d be one of the few Liberal Democrats that was against road pricing. Fortunately I see that I am not alone – Jonny Wright and Tristan Mills appear to be with me on this one, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
For me it is primarily that I don’t like the idea of having my every move tracked by the government. A civil liberties argument that Lib Dems are usually all for. I know that they say there is technology now that allows us to be tracked without the specific details of where we’ve been being stored, but that doesn’t make me rest any easier. I don’t want to be tracked full stop. But to muddy the waters yet further though, if the government wants to introduce road pricing I cannot see how they can do it without recording where you’ve gone. What if you want to query your bill? If the information on where you’ve been is not recorded there is no way of proving which roads you used. So really I just object to it simply on practical grounds – I don’t see how it will work and satisfy the majority of people.
What I can also see though is a scenario where people decide to use minor roads to avoid the hefty charges on the busy roads. This then annoys the people in those areas who then lobby the government to increase the charge through their village. At that point someone notices that far from road pricing replacing other taxes it does lead on to a massive increase in what you pay to drive overall. This is in then followed by mass protests by motorists who object to the increase in charges. You will also end up with the ‘road hump situation’ where people want higher charges on their road, but not on the roads they use nearby. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic.
I accept something must be done to encourage cars to get off the road, and I know that improving public transport is not enough on its own. I can see that the congestion charge works well in some places like London. But in a city like Sheffield, the congestion is more of a problem on the routes that go in to the city centre rather than in the centre itself. Plus, we also have Meadowhall on our doorstep, which would simply end up sucking business away from the city centre if we had city centre congestion charging.
The area that I think may be the solution is to remove the other taxes on motoring and simply add something to the cost of petrol. To help rural areas where driving is more of a necessity there could be a discount in the tax for petrol stations with rural postcodes. However, where I accept there is a flaw is that this would perhaps encourage a switch in modes of travel on long-distances (where trains are a very practical option anyway), but it might not do much for cities, where the journey would still be pretty cheap as it is so short.
So all in all, there are flaws in all of the options, but my feeling is that road pricing is definitely not the wonderful panacea that some believe. It could well lead to unexpected problems, and become an increasingly unpopular tax.