Darling veers towards tolls on local roads to beat jams

By Barrie Clement
Saturday 25 January 2014 04:15
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The new Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, is to announce a fresh nationwide initiative to introduce road tolls to beat traffic jams.

Senior civil servants have been told to investigate how fresh impetus can be injected into a scheme under the Government's 10-year plan giving local authorities the power to introduce congestion charging.

Mr Darling, who indicated at the weekend that he would reject plans from the government advisor on transport Lord Birt for a network of toll motorways, has decided against the kind of radical revision of the Government's plan that had been envisaged by the former Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers.

Mr Darling has already told officials that the ministry has done "too much rewriting'' of policies in the past.

While Mr Byers intended to reveal a revised version of the strategy next month, his successor has told civil servants that his document will not be published until the autumn.

The former transport secretary was expected to back away from congestion charging and taxes on workplace parking in favour of bus services.

Mr Darling, however, a former chairman of transport on Lothian Council, Edinburgh, is known to be more enthusiastic about measures to discourage traffic jams.

Outside London, where the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has announced the introduction of peak-time tolls for next February, only Durham has applied for permission to charge motorists, on a short stretch of road near the city centre.

Other councils are considering the introduction of such charging policies, but so far none has applied to the Government for a licence.

It is thought that many of the local authorities are waiting to see how Mr Livingstone's policy works, before embarking on initiatives themselves.

The Transport Secretary will derive considerable encouragement for his favoured policies from a recent piece of research by the RAC Foundation. The research showed that motorists had changed their attitudes and now endorsed the introduction of congestion charging, provided that other forms of taxation on drivers were relaxed.

Mr Darling was dismissive of Lord Birt's "blue skies" plans for a motorway building programme to cope with spiralling traffic growth.

In his first round of newspaper interviews this weekend he said: "Britain isn't big enough for us to be pouring more and more concrete over its green and pleasant land." He added: "I haven't yet had a chance to speak to John [Birt] since I was appointed, but I don't think there is much sympathy for building a whole new network of motorways around the country."

The Transport Secretary is adamant that efforts to tackle congestion in cities should not be construed as "anti-car". He is far better placed to reach an accommodation with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, over duty on fuel and road tax.

Mr Darling was formerly chief secretary of the Treasury is a long time ally of the Chancellor. Mr Byers' relationship with Mr Brown was more difficult because of his close alliance with the Prime Minister.

In Lothian, Mr Darling raised his profile by leading a campaign against an Edinburgh relief road and by speaking out against city centre developments that could cause transport problems.

During his period in Scotland's capital, he also got to know Professor David Begg, who was then in charge of the city's transport department and who is now using his chairmanship of the Commission for Integrated Transport to advocate road charging.

Former colleagues of the Transport Secretary in Edinburgh, however, believe that he could take a more hard-nosed approach to transport projects, particularly those concerning expensive rail schemes.

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