Steve Richards: The retreat from road pricing is a classic case of a necessary policy killed by cowardice

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The decision by the Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly, to scrap embryonic plans for road pricing is one of those minor manoeuvres that cast much light on the state of British politics. In a single defensively pragmatic move, Ms Kelly highlights the confused contortions that are taking place across the political spectrum over green issues, the paralysing limits of the so-called new politics, in which leaders seek fresh ways to engage with voters, and the damaging consequences of the extreme caution that has infected the Government since its election more than ten years ago.

Ms Kelly announced that she is shelving the Government's nervously experimental road-pricing scheme in favour of letting drivers use motorway hard shoulders. Not surprisingly, the head of the AA hailed the "dramatic change" as an extremely welcome U-turn. For about 10 seconds, the Government is the motorists' friend – but it will not be long before they turn on it again.

The sequence that led to the predictable U-turn is worth re-visiting. When he was transport secretary, Alistair Darling displayed his usual genius for killing off all interest in a brief for which he is responsible. It is a genius he has lost since moving to the Treasury. Nonetheless, while managing to take transport off the front pages with his managerial pragmatism, Mr Darling made one semi-bold move. He came out in favour of road pricing. The political courage was blunted by the timescale. He envisaged experimental schemes taking place well in the future.

Subsequently, another transport secretary, Douglas Alexander, became at least as enthusiastic. Mr Alexander gave more details of how road pricing would work in what was his only vaguely radical move at the department.

The political reaction was interesting and not entirely discouraging. The Conservatives want to be green and the motorists' friend, so they were confused as to what to say. In response to Mr Darling, their spokesman at the time, Alan Duncan, expressed support in principle. The qualification provided a useful get-out clause for the Conservatives when the going got tough but there was not the usual dynamic which terrifies this Government in relation to controversial proposals. The Tories were not, at an early stage, unequivocally opposed. But, quite separately, Tony Blair was looking at new ways to engage with the voters. This included the introduction of petitions for voters to register their views on the Downing Street website. Quicker than it takes to drive from one part of London to another, millions of motorists had signed a petition against road pricing.

Like something out of a mad farce, Mr Alexander, who had become transport secretary, was apoplectic with fury that his radical proposal was being attacked from the Government's main website. The game was up. A government that often panicked when it was 30 points ahead in the polls got into a wholly predictable state over the protest and now has dropped the proposal.

I have no doubt that ministers or their successors will return to the proposal in the future. They will have no choice in the matter. It is obvious. There is not enough space on the roads, therefore the limited space will have to be rationed. The most effective way of rationing is through a pricing mechanism.

When road pricing is introduced, the short-sighted motorists who rushed to sign the petition would be congratulating a government for enabling them to travel at greater speed. Thanks to their frenzied campaign on the Downing Street website, they will have to wait longer for their liberation.

The fact that it is not going ahead highlights the limitations of petitions as a way of shaping decisions. New Labour under Mr Blair and now Gordon Brown is often described as arrogant. As I have argued before, the problem is that it has never been arrogant enough. It is always desperate to please, whether it is The Sun, The Daily Mail or two million signatories on its website. The problem with the politics of the environment is that decisions are required that will often be unpopular in the short-term.

In this context there is a big risk that the fashionable "new politics", in which leaders seek a dialogue with the voters on every policy, will lead to bad rather than better government. Petitions would have stopped some of the most effective policies over recent decades, many of which were unpopular at the time and became popular later.

In this case, highly cautious ministers such as Mr Darling and Mr Alexander also gave their opponents all the time required to destroy their rare excursion into bolder terrain. They should have announced their support for road pricing and got on with the introduction, instead of claiming that the technology was so impossibly complicated that it would take decades to introduce. They knew that road pricing had to be introduced but did not want to by anywhere near the scene when the introduction took place.

Ken Livingstone showed how it could be done with the introduction of the congestion charge in London. Polls suggested the charge would be unpopular. Mr Livingstone was unfazed and was re-elected having imposed the tax. He did not introduce an experimental scheme in one road between the hours of 3am and 4am, which would have been the New Labour approach. He got on with it.

The congestion in London is still terrible, but it would have been much worse without the charge. Importantly, the cash that is raised is spent on improving other forms of transport so the benefits of the charge are more tangible. The mighty media might succeed in destroying Mr Livingstone at the forthcoming mayoral election but, while other leaders proclaim their boldness, he has been genuinely courageous and for much of his period in power has been popular, too.

The politics of the environment are complex. In general, most voters are green. When it comes to the specifics, they love their cars and flights. The dynamics remind me of the debates about tax and spending, where few seem to make a connection between the two. They want tax cuts and higher spending. The confusion is starker still in relation to green issues.

Only last weekend, a friend of mine ranted against another runway at Heathrow before casually telling me he was flying to Barbados. He wanted others to stop flying but saw no problem in him leaping on to the nearest plane to the sun. Similarly, motorists fume with good cause when they are stuck in some nightmarish traffic jam but erupt against measures aimed at improving the flow of journeys.

Sometimes leaders must take tough decisions and hope the plaudits will come later. Tough decisions will not be taken if leaders are so obsessed with short-term popularity, the instant verdicts on the internet and the petitions of unthinking protesters. Instead, they will take the seemingly safer option of standing still, like the traffic that is doomed to get nowhere while road space is free.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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