Foreign lorries may be charged for using British roads

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The Independent Online

A popssible tax on foreign lorries using UK roads, and a breakdown of the full cost so far of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic – total now £2.7bn - were the two most environmentally eye-catching points of a pre-Budget report not overladen with green thinking.

Although Gordon Brown mentioned "10 new environmental measures" ranging from cleaner fuels and vehicles of the future to water-use reduction, none is a specific proposal. Consultation documents are being issued to stimulate thinking on each subject.

The freshest idea is that of taxing heavy goods vehicles from abroad, its purpose being, Mr Brown said, "that foreign lorries pay some of the environmental and other costs of using British roads".

Officials pointed out that this would only be creating a level playing field because British lorries are so taxed when they cross the Channel. In northern Europe, it can cost about £1,000 per lorry per year and this may be the sort of level the Government has in mind.

The tax would probably be universally applied, but neutralised for British hauliers by concessions elsewhere in the tax system, possibly through lower vehicle excise duty. That would not be seen as much of a green measure by environmentalists as it could be an encouragement to British hauliers to use the roads more. The plan met a mixed response from green groups yesterday.

"A new tax on foreign lorries will not compensate the environment for the giant bung given to UK hauliers in the last Budget," said Tim Jenkins, head of research at Friends of the Earth (FoE).

"In March, Gordon Brown cut duty on ultra-low sulphur diesel [almost all diesel sold] by 3p a litre. and research commissioned by FoE shows that in a full year, UK hauliers will benefit from fuel-duty cuts by up to £422m."

Mr Brown is also thinking about bringing vans and motorcycles into the system of green taxes, possibly by differential charging, with lower road tax for those vehicles which emit less carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The cost of this year's foot-and-mouth epidemic was much more clear cut, with Mr Brown announcing a total of £2.7bn. Officials later gave a detailed breakdown. The largest amount, £1,252m, was allocated to compensate farmers for the slaughter of infected animals, with the next biggest sum, £701m, being the cost of eradicating the disease through slaughter, cleansing and disinfection.

Farmers who had to dispose of uninfected animals trapped by movement restrictions received compensation of £471m. A total of £54m was spent on helping rural businesses recover, £18m on tourism promotion, £15m on advice and marketing support for farmers and £4m for the reopening of rights of way. These are unlikely to be final costs.

The Treasury has confirmed that the long-awaited tax on aggregates – the sand, gravel and crushed rock used in the construction industry – would go ahead next April, but the somewhat similar proposal for a tax on pesticides was still being considered.

There was no announce-ment of extra cash for flood defence, although the Depart- ment of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is thought to have pressed for more after last winter's severe flooding.