RAC prof: Road charges can end the ripoff of motorists
Only if they aren't run by the government, though
The head of the RAC Foundation - the RAC's independent roads research charity - says that the English highway system can no longer be run the way it now is, as a colossal money-spinner for the Treasury. He advocates a move to "pay as you go" road use.
Stephen Glaister, a retired professor of transport and infrastructure, lays out his views in a new report, Governing and Paying for England's Roads, published last week. The document refers specifically to English roads owing to the existence of devolved government in the other kingdoms of the UK; but it notes that 84 per cent of the UK's population is in England and so are the most heavily-used parts of the road network.
Glaister sets out today's situation, in which the road system is a huge money maker for the Treasury. Road users pay £46bn each year in fuel duty and road tax, of which no more than a quarter or a third at most is spent on roads. The rest is used to fund the loss-making parts of government: proportionally, most goes on welfare and health.
This has led to a serious lack of capacity. Of the top 27 countries considered by the World Economic Forum, the UK ranks 24th for its roads (20th for rail). Considered against an average of the top 5 EU nations plus the USA, Canada and Japan, UK roads carry two and a half times as many people and twice as much freight. Motorway traffic is up 17 per cent in the last decade, but the motorway network grew by only four per cent over the same time: overall traffic is up by 11 per cent, but in total the road network has grown by on 1.5 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, studies in recent years have warned of crippling congestion as population climbs and the economy grows, though there has been a brief stay of execution owing to the recent recession.
The last government broadly accepted these warnings, but essentially did nothing about them - Glaister notes that the MPs of the Commons Transport Committee accused the then Transport minister Lord Adonis of "effectively rejecting" the most recent roads warnings. Glaister criticises Adonis' belief that new and extremely expensive high-speed rail links will seriously ease problems on the roads.
The government is able to take road users' money and divert most of it to other things, according to Glaister, because there are no rules on what level of road service must be provided and nobody in particular is responsible. The prof does accept that it's politically unrealistic to suggest that all or most of the current road revenues be spent on roads: that would equate to cuts in other departments - on top of what they are now suffering - equal to something like the entire budget of the MoD, a third of the NHS, or a fifth of the DWP. Some degree of subsidy from road revenue to other parts of government seems inevitable.
Glaister suggests that management of the road system be moved to "arm's length" from government into a powerful new body with set rules as to the level of service it has to provide, with revenues of its own raised by some system of "pay as you go" road use - tolls, road pricing, what you will. It could receive its cash straight from the Treasury under the so-called "shadow toll" system already used on PFI roads, under which builders are paid a fee for each person who uses their road.
The prof freely acknowledges that road pricing schemes considered by the government in recent times have been wildly unpopular: famously, plans for a national system were shelved after 1.8 million people signed a No.10 petition against it in December 2006. Glaister considers, rightly or wrongly, that this upswell of public opinion occurred because people thought that the new charges would be a ripoff: that they would be charged a "stealth tax" and nothing would be done to improve the roads.
VED and fuel-duty cuts aren't green? But if we go green they'll vanish anyway
But Prof Glaister argues that road users are already being so massively ripped off with the current tax-disc and fuel duty (plus no money for roads) policy that it would be quite possible to win people over. He considers that it would be possible to offer serious cuts in road tax and fuel duty as an incentive to put up with road charges - say on the same level as the French or Italian motorways - especially if it was understood that the new road charges would be actually be spent on improving the roads.
According to the prof:
User charging is one element in a balanced package of measures designed to improve conditions on the road network—with the proceeds being used to fund investment in the system. It is not simply an additional revenue-raising tool for government.
It has often been argued that road pricing is also likely to impose unacceptable loss of privacy, as it would be hard to avoid the creation of massive databases of time-slugged vehicle locations. However, this has more or less happened anyway independent of any road pricing schemes - automatic numberplate recognition cameras (ANPR) have spread to cover most of the motorway system in recent years. Then, it is also technically possible  to build an in-vehicle box which refers to its own internal maps to determine local speed limits or tolls but never uploads location data outside the vehicle.
Glaister for one thinks that it would be possible for the Treasury to still pocket hefty sums - perhaps not as much as it now does - and yet raise enough cash for a properly run, properly audited roads authority or corporation to do a proper job (his unsaid corollary would seem to be that it is hardly likely it could worse).
It's often suggested that road pricing could be used as a way of simply squeezing more out of the existing roads without building new ones - more would be charged at peak times, for instance, encouraging drivers to time their journeys when the roads are little used and so spreading traffic out more across the day or week. Glaister seems sceptical about this, however, suggesting that unless there were some visible payoff involved for drivers - eg, cheaper fuel or tax discs - they would never vote for this.
Unfortunately fuel duty and VED are also regarded by Greens primarily as a way of coercing people to use lower-carbon means of transport. There would be strong resistance to cuts here on environmental grounds, just as there usually are to the building of new roads.
But Glaister also raises the point that if environmental policies are successful there will in effect be a reduction in fuel and vehicle taxes anyway. If people move wholesale to the use of low-carbon vehicles the current fuel and disc revenues will disappear, creating a massive black hole in the government's accounts and turning the roads into a loss-maker like the railways. Something will have to replace road tax and fuel duty, says the prof, so it makes sense to start doing it now.
You can read the report in full here (pdf) . ®