Environmental campaigners have urged ministers to stand firm over plans to introduce road pricing in the face of a protest petition signed by more than one million people.
Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is facing his first big test as a cabinet minister on the issue, was under pressure not to give way to the populist campaign backed by the motoring lobby and a number of national newspapers. He accused the protesters of spreading "myths" about road pricing.
Friends of the Earth warned that the protests threaten to undermine the Government's efforts to curb car use, which they say is a significant cause of carbon emissions. They urged ministers to do more to win the argument over road pricing.
Tony Bosworth, the campaign group's senior transport campaigner, said: "Road pricing is not a magic-bullet solution to Britain's transport problems, but it is part of the answer. The biggest transport problem we face is not congestion, it is climate change."
A total 1,183,988 people by last night had signed the petition on a Downing Street website to protest against the introduction of road pricing and the number was still climbing. More than 100,000 names were added at the weekend and some objectors claimed last night they had been unable to sign it because the website was overloaded.
Downing Street was desperate to shore up the Transport Secretary after reports that he was about to bow to pressure and "axe the toll tax". In a sideswipe at Mr Alexander, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It is not a matter of numbers. We need to convince people of the merits of the policy."
Some ministers are furious at the way the Downing Street website - launched as part of Tony Blair's modernisation agenda - has backfired on the Transport Secretary. One minister said the idea of allowing an electronic petition to be signed on the No 10 site was produced by a "prat".
It was becoming a test of Tony Blair's commitment to tackling climate change, but Mr Douglas hit back at the protesters, saying: "If you look at the petition itself, there are a number of myths which have been perpetrated and that's why I welcome the opportunity to set some of the facts straight. There's no doubt that those people who initiated the petition had a particular point of view in mind.
"I think it's perfectly fair that people express an opinion. Ultimately the job of government is to try to reconcile what are often competing, even contradictory, opinions held by the public." He added: "In our country we don't have the luxury of doing nothing if we are not to see American-style gridlock on our roads."
The "myths" have included claims that it could cost motorists £1.50 a mile, although no figures have been worked out.
John Spellar, a former Labour transport minister, said that it was a tax on going to work. Some newspapers that have taken up the campaign compared road pricing to the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher, which led to riots in London, and her eventual downfall.
The petition claims that road pricing would require the state to spy on drivers. The "idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong", it said. Similar protests have been mounted against congestion charging in London, which has been praised for reducing car use in the capital and making some areas safer and more pleasant for pedestrians. Road pricing could be applied to major motorways or minor roads, once the technology was available.
Mr Alexander's department is proposing a series of pilot schemes to test the feasibility of road pricing. It infuriated the protesters last week when it published a business case for local authorities across the country to support the scheme.
Briefing notes from the Department for Transport said the national scheme would not be implemented until the middle of the decade but councils did not have to wait to gain some of the benefits locally. It says road pricing could raise up to £28bn by 2025.
"A well-designed local road-pricing scheme has the potential to reduce congestion significantly in the local area. These areas can expect to see reduced journey times ... and significant improvements in public transport provision. This is good for all sectors of society whether they be shoppers, workers or business," said the notes.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said he had strong civil liberties concerns about the plans. "There are very real concerns that the road pricing model that the Government is looking at will allow routine surveillance of every citizen in the country ... Clearly that is not acceptable," he said.
Paul Biggs,spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said: "The only way road pricing can work is to actually price people off the roads ... It is Big Brother - and they [drivers] don't want that."
The case for (and against) charging
By Jonathan Brown
According to the Association of British Drivers, which has been at the forefront of the anti-road pricing petition, the UK's 33 million cars have "no measurable impact" on global CO2 levels. Claiming "overwhelming evidence" that climate change is "within natural limits", its website manifesto says taxes and duties currently imposed on vehicles, with the professed aim of combating global warming, should be scrapped. Green groups argue that motoring is a key source of CO2 and must be cut urgently.
As part of his report into the UK transport network published last year, the former British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington said there was a need for road pricing. The Government accepted his figures that congestion will cost the UK economy £22bn in lost time by 2025, the equivalent of £900 per household. Road pricing would, by contrast, benefit the economy by £28bn. Friends of the Earth says the best way to cut car growth, alongside reducing need and offering a more attractive alternative, is to make it more expensive. The real cost of motoring has fallen in relation to public transport since 1997, it claims.
Campaigners against the road-pricing plan argue that motorists are being discriminated against. They say that they already bear a heavy financial burden. It is argued that existing road taxes and duty on fuel provide the fairest way of making sure that those who use roads the most pay the most. Opponents object to the growing application of technology in the form of road cameras and satellites as infringements on civil liberties. They claim cameras have failed to reduce accidents and have instead become "stealth taxes" for the Government. Supporters of a national road-pricing scheme say technology provides the cheapest and most effective way to implement it.
All sides agree there is too much congestion in the UK. Britain is the most congested country in Europe, with journey times continuing to rise. There are seven million more cars on our roads than in 1997 and congestion in towns and cities is set to soar 25 per cent by 2015. The big question is how to cut it. Motoring groups such as the RAC welcome limited pricing at peak times to reduce traffic jams; others demand extensive road building beyond that laid out in the Government's 10-year plan. Supporters say road pricing should be one component of a more integrated transport system that reduces car reliance.Reuse content