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Leading article: High taxes on car users might not be the answer

Taxes on car use – like those on alcohol and tobacco – provoke bitter arguments about real goals and hidden agendas. Is the ultimate aim to curb people's bad habits, be they driving, drinking or smoking, or is it more about raising revenue on the sly, without putting up income tax? We can expect renewed debate on those familiar lines now that the congestion charge has been scrapped in west London, and now that the minister for decentralisation, Greg Clark, has written to local authorities to tell them that the Government is scrapping its parking charge advice to local councils.

Until now, this advised them to raise charges in order to get more people out of their cars. So the response from some quarters will be to claim that both changes offer proof that the Coalition Government is dumping whatever green credentials it claimed to have, and that the Tory party, to which Mr Clark belongs, is playing to the gallery. Conservatives have indeed long been seen as the car-friendly party while Labour has carried the flag for public transport. No surprise then, if you follow this line of argument, that the congestion charge is being banished from wealthy west London, the capital's Tory heartland.

But we must hope that the argument about charges on motorists does not end with the recitation of political clichés. When London first introduced the congestion charge in 2003, the case in its favour looked overwhelming. Businesses opposed it from the start. But those complaints were initially trumped by falls in the levels of traffic of about 30 per cent in the first two years, which made London a cleaner, more pedestrian-friendly place. Since then, however, traffic levels have crept back upwards and congestion levels today are more or less what they were in 2002. This has prompted claims that the charge has become another regressive tax that doesn't cut car numbers or reduce pollution, while hitting the less well-off hardest. Supporters of the charge are thrown back on the claim that matters would surely be worse without it, but this can't be proven.

Mr Clark's argument for scrapping advice to local councils on parking charges also deserves consideration. He maintains that high charges do not force people out of cars but only encourage them to drive further to out-of-town shopping centres where they can park for free. The big casualty, therefore, is the old town-centre high street with its necklace of small shops. This question needs looking at. If the most lasting effect of high parking charges is to boost the profits of supermarket chains, something has gone wrong.

Part of the problem with the way that Britain has handled car-related questions has been over-reliance on foreign models. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost slavish adherence to American thinking on how we should live inspired what now seems the absurd idea that everyone would want to drive everywhere – paying little or nothing for petrol. Since the 1980s, looking to Europe has been in vogue. But copying the transport policies of continental cities has not always proven much more helpful. It is easy to winkle drivers out of cars and on to trams in small, high-density cities like Amsterdam; less easy in much more spread-out British cities like London, where living patterns are different.

This newspaper has always supported measures that will make Britain a more environmentally friendly country, just as we back doing whatever it takes to curb global warming. But support for a broadly green agenda should not be seen as blind faith in pat solutions. We deserve a more informed and expert debate on whether the range of recent initiatives aimed at making motorists pay more have in fact done anything to change their behaviour.