Motorway tolls to put brake on age of car

The roads debate: A radical shift in policy could see a switch away from controversial construction programmes
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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN

Chief Political Correspondent

Britain's major road network could be opened to a pay-as-you-go system for motorists under plans being studied by a Cabinet committee.

Regional corporations would take over the major roads network from the Government, and take funds from motorists by direct charges for using motorways.

Senior ministerial sources have confirmed the plans are being considered, as part of a radical review of transport policy led by Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Cabinet is still considering the options, but Sir George has told colleagues: "We cannot go on as we are."

The plans are part of the "great transport debate" initiated by his predecessor, Brian Mawhinney, now chairman of the Conservative Party, and will bring to an end to the era of continual road building to cope with greater car use.

It is likely to see a shift of emphasis away from planning more roads for private car users to an integrated transport system. More will be done to encourage more commuters to use public transport. The shift has been accelerated by the cuts in capital spending which slashed the road- building programme, but ministers are also keen to be seen to listen to the environmental lobby. The battle over the Newbury bypass could be the last of its kind. The policy once hailed by Baroness Thatcher as the "great car economy" is about to be reversed.

The plans could be produced in a strategy paper, in an attempt to steal some thunder from Clare Short, Labour's transport spokeswoman, who is due to unveil Labour's proposals before Easter. The centrepiece of Labour's plans will be reversing the privatisation of British Rail, including proposals to take Railtrack back into public ownership or control.

Under the Tory scheme, road tolls could be paid through a tax disc to be displayed on the windscreen - as in Switzerland - or through road charges by computerised tolling systems.

They could take money direct from the road tax, but the Treasury will resist the allocation of earmarked cash for roads from its tax receipts. The radical shift in the management of British roads is likely to be welcomed by road organisations, because it could lead to higher investment in repairs and maintenance. Officials have said Britain is at a "crossroads" over its love affair with the car.

Sir George will prepare Britain to turn away from expansion in road building and car ownership, to greater use of public transport. Radical schemes to persuade more people to use public transport include taxing drivers to commute to urban areas in cars, and incentives to use public transport.

After rejecting the idea of integrated transport policy for more than a decade, Sir George is edging towards the policy. However, Sir George, a "One Nation" Tory, is keen to see co-ordinated transport services develop from the ground, rather than to impose a national plan.

He is enthusiastic about the fact that Stagecoach, the bus operator which became the first company to win a franchise to operate privatised trains, is planning bus services to rail stations to increase the use of its rail services.

The deadline for comments on the future of transport in Britain was passed last September, and officials said they were impressed by the quality of the ideas being put forward.

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