Small cars will pay same road toll as gas-guzzlers

Gas-guzzling limousines will pay the same rate as small cars under the Government's plans for a nationwide road-toll system.

The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, said any attempt to introduce a different rate to encourage vehicles with a lower petrol consumption would be too complicated.

Speaking yesterday at a seminar organised by the Social Market Foundation think-tank, Mr Darling also refused to guarantee that the average motorist would not pay any more under the scheme. He said details of the initiative had yet to be worked out, and he called on local authorities to volunteer for a pilot scheme to test the toll system and its satellite-based technology.

Mr Darling said that instead of setting higher charges for bigger vehicles, the Government would introduce regulations about the construction and environmental efficiency of cars. New speed limits could also be introduced. "We will need to look at measures to encourage people to drive environmentally friendly vehicles,'' he said.The Department for Transport would look at ways of encouraging and developing hydrogen fuels.

Mr Darling said that £200m a year would be made available for distribution to local authorities interested in pioneering stopgap measures to limit peak-time measures and for those who wanted to take part in the pay-as-you-go experiment.

Stephen Joseph, of the environmental group Transport 2000, said that without a higher tariff for "gas guzzlers'', the scheme would be counterproductive. "We don't want it to necessarily be revenue neutral but there are many questions he needs to answer.''

In his speech to a seminar organised by the foundation, the Transport Secretary acknowledged that he needed to build support for such a radical measure.

''Consensus among politicians is not enough. We need to learn the lessons from Europe over the past few weeks and recognise the need to take the public with us.

"If you stopped 100 people in the street right now and asked them about national road pricing, I would be willing to bet that, until this week, most would say they hadn't even given the issue much thought, never mind the benefit such a system might bring to them as motorists and to the country.'' The Government needed to show to motorists that there was "something in it for you''. The objective was to get more out of the road network.

A feasibility study last year concluded that motorists would pay as little as 2p a mile on little-used roads in the early hours of the morning. However, they could pay as much as £1.34 a mile on the busiest roads at peak time.

The system would mean that electronic devices would be placed in each of the 24 million cars on the road and that the relevant data would be submitted to a satellite. The amount to be paid by the motorist would then be calculated by a central computer.