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Think tank recommends satellite road charging for UK

The tax rise in the sky...

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The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) today released a report recommending the introduction of a national road-charging system for the UK, most likely using satellite technology. Ministers have in the past indicated that they view GPS road charging as a likely way forward for transport policy, but as the IPPR is closely aligned to Labour, its report provides indications of how and why such a charge would be implemented, and possibly also brings implementation closer.

From the motorist's perspective the most important bottom line is possibly that the outfit recommends a tax increase, rather than a neutral substitution of road pricing for current transport revenue sources. The reasoning underlying this is that the trend for road use is upwards, aided by factors such as falling vehicle costs and decline in real fuel prices, so taxation should be increased in some way to counteract this. Simply switching to road pricing on a revenue-neutral basis would therefore not work, although it would have an obvious redistributive effect by charging depending on level of use. The report notes that the introduction "is likely to be politically challenging and the Government will need to identify ways of making it more publicly aceptable." Indeed. However, the abolition of Vehicle Excise Duty is a logical sweetener, and as fuel tax rises have in recent years also proved "politically challenging", pricing could possibly turn out to be no more so.

But as and when it goes ahead, look for much argument as to whether or not it is a tax rise. And remember that a tax rise is precisely what the think tank said it should be.

The report's focus is almost entirely on the control of traffic levels and CO2 emissions, with little on the actual mechanisms and costings of scheme implementations. These will however come into the foreground as and when the government gives charging the green light.

The London congestion charge provides some lessons for a nationwide scheme, but can't be seen as a uniformly positive blueprint. As the IPPR notes, it is accepted by the majority of Londoners and has reduced traffic levels in central London, but it's now becoming apparent that it has technical problems, and that it's falling substantially short of achieving its revenue-raising targets, making it less feasible to implement the improvementsa in public transport it was supposed to fund. In addition, it's a free-standing system which if anything interferes with the implementation of a wider-ranging integrated policy.

Aside from the London scheme, which uses number plate recognition, there are schemes elsewhere in the world using satellite and/or transponders for pricing. But these tend to be small, on relatively easily policed stretches of road, and may prove difficult to translate into a national scheme. Until such time as ID systems are fitted in vehicles as standard, it will be necessary to retro-fit, to have back-up systems for charging vehicles that don't have them, and to catch evaders. This is fairly straightforward in a small area or on a single stretch of highway, but considerably more complicated for a whole country. Singapore, for example, uses cameras to snap vehicles that don't register, and it's generally not a smart idea to get on the wrong side of the Singapore authorities anyway. Clearly, that doesn't work for the whole of the UK.

And while GPS is frequently seen as the most logical and straightforward technology to use in pricing schemes, recent experiences in Germany raise questions about implementation. Here, a charging scheme has been postponed, with E730 million already spent, but with no clear indication yet of what has been going wrong with it. The onboard units have been presenting problems, and there have been reports of trucks being charged when on non-toll roads, and not charged when on toll roads. As the German scheme is also intended to be wide-ranging, it could be seen as a cautionary tale for those who view a nationwide scheme as a simple, 'magic bullet.' (More details in English at Risks Digest, and in German here. ®

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