"We are concerned," said the Commons Transport Committee in a report published yesterday, "that motorists are mistrustful of the Government regarding taxes." That could be regarded as something of an understatement. The faster the Government has talked of green taxes to discourage motoring in the interests of the environment, the more the motorist has checked his or her wallet to see just how much is being taken. Ministers talk of carbon emissions and the need to encourage the development of less polluting cars. The driver has viewed it instead as a smash-and-grab raid carried out to fatten the state purse.
The committee blames the gulf in understanding largely on the way that city congestion charges and variable rates of vehicle excise tax have been introduced – in haste, without proper explanation and inconsistently. You can put this down to the natural revulsion of citizens to any form of additional tax. If the voters of Manchester turned down a proposal for a congestion charge and the voters of London asked that it be removed from the western area, it was less out of principle than the feeling that taxes on drivers had gone quite far enough without any addition.
But dismissing motorists' objections as arising purely from self-interest hardly helps the case for additional burdens to be imposed on them. Nearly 30 million people, more than half the adult population, own a car and well over three-quarters drive reasonably regularly. So far they have been largely treated as milch cows for the Exchequer. If the Government is to start weaning drivers away from regular use, then it will have to convince voters they are being taxed for a reasonable purpose and that the money raised will be used for that purpose.
At the same time, there has to be reasonably priced public transport as an alternative to road travel. Those living in cities may find it easy to avoid using their cars; for those living in the country or commuting the options are much less satisfactory. There is a good case for asking drivers to bear the cost of carbon emissions, through road pricing and other means. But in a democratic society you will never get acquiesence unless you first obtain understanding.