Of all aspects of the government’s transport policy, road pricing remains one of the most controversial, says Theresa Villiers, MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
Alistair Darling was a strong advocate of a national road pricing scheme in his time at the DfT. In his first budget as Chancellor, he demonstrated that this enthusiasm has not waned when he set aside funding for research into the efficacy of a national road pricing system. It is, as yet, unclear whether Geoff Hoon is similarly enthusiastic about a national scheme.
He has, however, gone on record to tell Mancunians that they will get no Transport Innovation Fund money if they are not prepared to embrace charging. Conservatives believe that both Darling and Hoon are wrong. Although there may be a role for local road pricing and charging, a national scheme is unworkable and unnecessary, and any local scheme should be locally driven, not imposed from above as a result of bullying from Whitehall.
At the Conservative conference in September, I reiterated our party’s opposition to Labour’s proposals for a ‘spy in the sky’ national road pricing scheme. Just consider the Big Brother implications: the same government that wants us all to carry an ID card and has MPs arrested for revealing embarrassing facts about the Home Office, would hold the data on the location of every vehicle on every road, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
I simply do not believe that we could trust this government with such sensitive information on our everyday lives.
The practical difficulties associated with national road pricing are too significant to ignore. The cost of setting up the computer systems needed could be huge – it would be one of the biggest IT projects the world has ever known and one that would be fraught with risk. Furthermore, this scheme would need security systems capable of protecting it against some of the most sophisticated hackers in the world. Given their dismal record on data loss, few people can be confident that the government is equal to the task of procuring an effective system for safeguarding the personal information generated by a national road pricing scheme.
Turning to local schemes for congestion charging and road pricing, I believe there is a place for such projects where local communities feel that they are the right solution to their congestion problems. What I object to is the government using the Transport Innovation Fund to bully our towns and cities into congestion charging. The way the TIF fund currently works means the government is effectively saying: “If you introduce charging, you get money from central government to improve your transport system, but if you don’t, you will get nothing.”
That is what the government has said to Manchester, while at the same time ducking many of the big questions on the scheme proposed for the city and its suburbs.
Funding and costs
Given that the whole scheme is predicated on the premise that Manchester’s public transport system is inadequate for a city of its size and stature, why would Labour withdraw all funding if the charge is rejected, leaving Manchester with nothing? Projects included in the TIF package, like the Bolton Rail Bus Interchange, have been on the government’s transport to do list for years. And why should Labour be allowed to break the promises they have made time and again on improving and extending the Metrolink tram system just because Manchester voters might choose to say no to congestion charging?
Other issues around the Manchester proposal remain unresolved. What protections are in place for council taxpayers if the cost of the scheme overruns? The debts taken on to fund the scheme still have to be repaid. And it is important to remember that if the charge is successful and the number car journeys falls, revenue will also fall. What protections are in place to stop the charge increasing dramatically in the future, as Ken Livingstone planned to do before he was ejected from office? Even at the levels currently proposed, the charge could put a real dent in family budgets. Many people in Manchester are on salaries of around £15,000. If they need to travel through the two proposed congestion rings to get to work, they could end up paying £1,200 per year under this scheme, a tough ask in the current economic climate.
Vehicle excise duty
The economic climate also undermines the case for another of Labour’s misconceived driving related policies – retrospective hikes in Vehicle Excise Duty on family cars. This measure has nothing to do with green taxation and encouraging environmentally-responsible behaviour, and everything to do with fixing the black hole left at the Treasury by years of Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement.
By contrast, the Conservatives have set out plans for a fair fuel duty stabiliser. This would mean that a rising oil price would be met by falling duty, and vice versa. This would help families and businesses plan for the future by smoothing out the impact of sudden spikes in the price of fuel. It would also mean that the government was sharing the pain when times are tough and oil prices rise, and sharing the gain when times get easier and the price falls. It is a classic case of fixing the roof while the sun is shining because revenues strengthen when oil prices are low.
So in summary, we reject national road pricing as expensive and unnecessary. The decision on whether to press ahead with local schemes should be a genuinely local choice free of bullying from central government. That is why we would reform the TIF fund so that any local authority can apply for support from the scheme, regardless of whether their proposal contains a charging element or whether it does not. And that is why we welcomed Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap the western extension of the London Congestion Charge because, in doing so, he was abiding by the outcome of a detailed consultation carried out amongst local residents.