Leading article: Drive this idea forward - and fast

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has used Britain's motorways in recent years, or spent time in a city centre at rush hour, will know that traffic congestion is a growing problem in this country. The sheer volume of traffic on our roads is exacerbating pollution and reducing our quality of life. It is also losing the nation money; the CBI estimates that congestion costs the UK economy some £20bn a year.

So the news this week that the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, has granted £7m to a number of local authorities to begin work on developing local road-charging schemes is welcome. The success of the initially controversial congestion charge, introduced to central London by Ken Livingstone in early 2003, has demonstrated that such schemes can reduce traffic density. The other lesson of the London congestion charge is that strong political will is needed to take on the motoring lobby.

Mr Darling's scheme will be more ambitious in scope than London's flat charge. The Transport Secretary hopes to utilise satellite technology to identify all motorists who are on the roads at the busiest times and charge them by the mile. He expects that the first local scheme will be unveiled in 18 months and that, in a decade, the entire British road network will be covered. Ultimately, road charging is expected to replace fuel duty and vehicle excise duty as a way of raising money from drivers.

This is consistent with the principle that the polluter pays. Those who use their cars regularly at peak times should be charged more than those who drive infrequently and at times when they are unlikely to add to congestion. A scheme on this model should also provide incentives for drivers to use public transport - which do not really exist under the present system - along with much improved facilities for cyclists and pedestrians.

There are caveats. Substantial investment needs to be made in public transport so drivers are genuinely persuaded to get out of their cars rather than simply penalised for getting caught in traffic jams. There must also be safeguards to protect the privacy of drivers. Satellite records of an individual's journeys should not be held forever.

But the Government is right to push ahead. There must be no capitulation to the motoring lobby, as there was in 2000 over the fuel duty. Transport has been virtually ignored by this Government since 1997. The "integrated transport policy" ended up a bit of a joke. Now, with road charging, the Government has an opportunity to set in motion a radical and progressive policy that could fundamentally alter the nature of transport in this country. It must not be shunted into a lay-by.

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