Leading article: Stuck in the wrong gear

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The Independent Online

Road charging has been government policy for quite some time now. Plans to charge drivers for using the busiest roads at peak times were first unveiled by the former transport secretary, Alistair Darling, back in June 2005. His successor, Douglas Alexander, announced regional trials last year. But suddenly the Government finds itself in a terrible flap on the subject. Ministers seem to have been spooked by a popular online petition calling for the plan to be scrapped. Mr Alexander now says that unless "motorists and families can see the benefits of bringing in a national road pricing system then it simply won't happen". So much for a Government with no reverse gear.

It is vital for environmental reasons that people get out of their cars and off the roads. Road transport is responsible for 20 per cent of the UK's greenhouse emissions. And UK traffic levels have risen some 11 per cent since 1997. The present expansion of road use is simply unsustainable. The question is: how is such a transport revolution to be achieved?

With respect to road charging, we should not be unduly swayed by this petition, which seems to be another manifestation of the power of the rejectionist drivers' lobby. But some of the concerns raised over the implications of the plan for our privacy are not unjustified. And it pays to be wary when this Government is touting an ambitious technological solution. It is legitimate to ask whether the same environmental goals could be achieved through significantly higher road taxes on highly-polluting cars, or a serious rise in fuel tax? This is the debate that should be taking place.

The Government's difficulties in this area are partially self-inflicted. It has a lamentable record on transport, having neglected to expand the cycle lane network and done too little to improve the rail systems. The result is that it is simply cheaper and more convenient for people to use their cars at the moment. Attempting to change these habits will not make the Government popular. But if ministers are serious about forestalling climate change they must do unpopular things.

Yet whatever mechanism ministers devise to get people off the roads, it must be seen to have a clear environmental goal. The recent rise in air passenger duty imposed by the Chancellor was an example of how not to introduce new environmental taxes. The duty is far too low to actually put people off flying, so there will be no real environmental benefits. It is a Treasury stealth tax dressed up in green clothing.

Such cynical half-measures discredit the wider environmental cause. Any more of the same on roads and New Labour's environmental credentials will be utterly destroyed.