Byers dismisses call for motorway tolls from rival Birt

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The Independent Online

Stephen Byers has slapped down Lord Birt, the former BBC chief brought in by the Prime Minister to, "think out of the box"on transport.

The Transport Secretary made it clear yesterday that Lord Birt's idea of motorway tolls to pay for substantial increases in road building was a non-starter. Lord Birt is due to deliver his musings to Tony Blair next month, but Mr Byers' department got its retaliation in first after parts of his report were leaked.

In January the Transport Secretary made clear his disdain for the former director-general of the BBC by telling the Commons Select Committee on Transport that his job as an adviser to the Prime Minister "keeps him occupied".

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said he would not comment on private advice to Number 10, but added that "road user charging" played no part in the Government's 10-year plan which runs to 2011.

The only "tolls" that will be allowed under the strategy are those aimed at reducing congestion in specific areas at certain times of the day, such as that proposed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Under recent legislation local authorities have been authorised to introduce "congestion charging" but apart from London only Durham has registered an interest for one small section of a road.

Ministers, under constant political pressure from the motoring lobby, have not gone out of their way to encourage applications for charges.

In his report, which may never be published, Lord Birt argues that without all-day road tolls in towns and motorways, traffic congestion will get worse.

The document, parts of which were leaked to The Economist magazine, calls for taxes on companies that provide parking space for their employees. It urges the Government to invest more in transport, particularly in buses.

In his Budget last week, the Chancellor introduced a new form of taxation for lorries which will vary according to the degree of road use. The level of the tax, which will replace vehicle excise duty in 2005, will depend on distance and the route travelled as monitored by satellite technology.

A report to be published next month by the RAC will support the idea of tolls, although it will also argue that they should be accompanied by investment on new roads and information systems aimed at enhancing traffic flow.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the function of the Forward Strategy Unit, of which Lord Birt is a part, was to look at the long term.

"We have said many times that policy for the course of the 10-year transport plan is settled," the spokeswoman said.

But it is known that Mr Byers regards Lord Birt and his "blue skies thinking" as an irritating sideshow. The Transport Secretary's officials point out that unlike Lord Birt they have considerable experience in the field, and are also engaged in strategic thinking.