Drivers facing pounds 75 bill for motorway use: Green Paper suggests permits as forerunner to electronic charging

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MOTORISTS could be paying to drive on motorways and major trunk roads in three years to pay for the road-building programme, under plans suggested in a government consultation paper yesterday.

The charges could also lead to reductions in other forms of taxation on motorists. The Green Paper, Paying for better motorways, suggests 'charging could possibly be accompanied by the realignment of motoring taxes'.

The paper suggests limiting motorway use to drivers who had bought a permit costing between pounds 25 and pounds 75 a year and ten times that for lorries, producing annual revenues of between pounds 250m and pounds 700m. A permit system 'could be quickly introduced and would be relatively straightforward to administer'.

Permits could be bought at petrol stations, post offices or ferry terminals and weekly or monthly tickets would be available for occasional motorway users. The Government is examining possible methods of camera enforcement.

A permit system would not, however, discriminate between frequent motorway users and the 48 per cent of motorists who never or very rarely go on motorways. Therefore it would only be a prelude to a more sophisticated charging system using electronic tags and smart cards which would charge car drivers between 0.5p and 1.5p per mile and lorries between 1.5p and 4.5p.

However, as John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, was told on a recent trip to Scandinavia where the technology is being tested, it would take at least five years to introduce such a system because probably all 25 million cars and lorries would have to be fitted with equipment. Since the necessary legislation will not be passed until mid-1995 at the earliest, electronic charging is highly unlikely to be introduced this side of 2000.

Electronic systems have the advantage of relating tolls directly to usage and would allow different rates to be charged on congested roads or at peak times. The Green Paper conceded that charging for motorway driving might persuade as many as 10 per cent of motorists to switch to other roads at peak times.

Revenue from the motorway charges would, Mr MacGregor emphasised, be used to pay for new roads, speeding up the roads programme. However, he faces a battle with the Treasury to convince it to allow the Department of Transport to keep the money as supplementary to its existing allocation.

Mr MacGregor, or his successor, will have a difficult task to win over the public. The paper met with hostility from predictable quarters such as the motoring organisations and the Labour Party, whose transport spokesman, John Prescott, said the scheme was 'nothing to do with transport, all to do with tax . . . it is a poll tax on wheels. They have introduced it on the railways, now we're going to get it on the roads.' It was just a way of raising revenue to reduce the Government's budget deficit.

However, the British Road Federation, which is supported by the road construction industry, welcomed the scheme. Its director, Richard Diment, said: 'These additional funds will not only speed up the completion of many long awaited bypasses but also allow more money for construction methods that minimise the environmental impact of schemes.'

Mr MacGregor was at pains to emphasise that no decisions had been made, other than to rule out conventional toll booths; he is allowing four months for consultation on the suggestions in the Green Paper.

Tory MPs were divided over the plan. One senior backbencher who regularly drives up the M1 said: 'You must be joking. I thought it was only for new roads. We can't have charges for existing roads. That's just not on.'

But other Tory MPs were less hostile. David Sumberg, the member for Bury South, said: 'I think people will accept it for motorways, as they do in France, and Switzerland, and the United States. But road pricing to go into cities won't do.'

Ministers believe the idea will be accepted, provided it is properly presented. 'It all depends on how we sell it. If it's just seen as another tax, it will do us a lot of harm. But if we can say it's improving roads and easing congestion, most people will accept it,' said one government source.

Privatising motorways, page 3

Leading article, page 27