Ministers claim the rate of evasion for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) is 0.6%, the lowest level ever.

So assuming this rate is uniform across all types of vehicle, and looking just at cars, what does that mean in absolute terms?

At the end of June 2014 there were 29.7 million cars licensed in Great Britain, suggesting there were about 180,000 cars driving around without a tax disc.

(Of course, as of 1 October this year the paper tax disc was abolished, but not the tax.)

Using an average VED figure of £144 that means VED evasion is costing the country roughly £26 million a year.

Ministers say that the abolition of the physical tax disc is unlikely to change the rate of offending and in fact the DVLA “… has not relied on the paper tax disc in enforcement of vehicle excise duty for some time. The DVLA and the police largely rely on the DVLA’s electronic vehicle register and tools like the Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras to ensure that payments have been made.”

Which sort of begs the question: if getting rid of the tax disc is such a good idea now why wasn’t it done ages ago?

P.S. Worth remembering that two-thirds of new cars registered in 2013 paid not VED in their first year.

Paris v London public transport passenger numbers

The greater Paris region is the only urban area in the Euro Zone to have more than 10 million people (some 2.2 million of which live in the city itself). So how do inhabitants of this great French metropolitan area get about? How does the situation compare to London? And faced with a rapidly rising population what can we on this side of the Channel learn from how things are done on the other?

Those were some of the themes at yesterday’s The Franco-British Transport Conference. At the heart of the discussions were the financing of urban transport and innovative solutions for the digital age.

From France, ‘The Grand Paris’ project was showcased. This ambitious 32 billion euro programme for a new circular express metro (as well as modernising and expanding existing transport networks) will add to the existing ‘hub and spoke’ rail network in and around Paris, and once opened it has been predicted that 10-15% of drivers will give up their cars as a result.

So how do Paris and London compare when it comes to capital transport? The answers are below:

Paris v London urban transport

Oh, and when it comes to fares, the basic ticket price in Paris is €1.70 compared with £2.20 in London when using an Oyster card (£4.70 without).

Almost 1.4 million new cars registered in Great Britain in 2013 paid nothing in Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) in their first year on the road.

This is almost two-thirds (63%) of the total of 2.2 million new cars registered.

The cars were exempt from VED because they emitted less than 131gCO2/km and fell into VED bands A-D.

In the first year on the road any vehicle that meets this target is zero rated for VED.

Things change from year two onwards when only those vehicles emitting less than 101gCO2/km (Band A) are completely exempt from VED.

However this still means that – assuming the rules stay the same – 324,000 cars bought last year will never be liable for VED.

This is a table of the VED bands and registration figures for each band for 2013.

VED Band CO2 Emissions Cars registered in 2013
A Up to 100g/km 324,000
B 101-110g/km 272,000
C 111-120g/km 430,000
D 121-130g/km 370,000
E 131-140g/km 301,000
F 141-150g/km 182,000
G 151-165g/km 153,000
H 166-175g/km 63,000
I 176-185g/km 33,000
J 186-200g/km 35,000
K 201-225g/km 18,000
L 226-255g/km 20,000
M Over 255g/km 10,000
TOTAL   2.2 million

A presentation to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum by Philip Gomm

I want to start by talking about a friend of mine called Nick. He is a conscientious and loving son who enjoyed a very close relationship with his father.

For some time Nick’s father had been seriously ill and Nick was making regular journeys between East Kent and Essex to spend time at his father’s bedside.

A fortnight ago Nick received a call to say his father had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Immediately Nick jumped in the car and headed off to be with him.

Unfortunately Nick got stuck in a jam. When his father died, Nick wasn’t sitting at his bedside but sitting in nose-to-tail traffic on the M25.

It sounds melodramatic, but that is the real, human cost of years of under investment in the road network, a creaking network that will come under more pressure as the economy improves and the population grows. Even if you believe that we have reached peak car – that point at which individual car use plateaus, or indeed falls, no matter how much wealthier we get – the explosion of people on this island will conspire to make congestion worse in the future not better.

There is hope on the horizon however.

When the government announced “the most radical change to the management of our [strategic] highways in nearly half a century, and the biggest investment in improvements since the seventies” we at the RAC Foundation very much welcomed it, notwithstanding that the bulk of the cash comes not in this parliament (what’s left of it) nor even at the beginning of the next, but is back loaded towards the end of the decade.

At least the money should be guaranteed. The RAC Foundation supports the transformation of the Highways Agency into a government owned company with a long term funding settlement similar to that on the railways. But even this raises as many questions as it answers, not least the role of the road user watchdog and, perhaps more importantly, what it being described as an independent monitor.

Note the word monitor rather than regulator. I am sure all of you out there will be familiar with this – Figure 2 of the recently published document: Transforming our Strategic Roads – A summary.

It says that the watchdog and the monitor are there to scrutinise costs, protect users’ interests and advise ministers. The word advise is worth underlining. The monitor is not a formal regulator. Ministers explain this purely advisory function by saying a formal economic regulator is not as necessary as it is in some other sectors because there are no direct charges to users. No direct charges? I hear 36 million drivers vehemently disagreeing. What about the £33 billion or so they contribute each year in fuel duty and VED alone?

What we are left with is a Strategic Highways Company – or companies, for the legislation allows for more than one – that will still be solely accountable to ministers. And reading the small print, even the funding is not guaranteed as the minister reserves the right to alter the terms of the Road Investment Strategy after appropriate consultation.

I will stay with the subject of drivers’ financial contribution to the Exchequer for a moment longer. The Los Angeles Times might not be required reading in your household but if it is then you could well have seen last week’s editorial in which it was pointed out that the United States Road Trust Fund is woefully short of money. The Fund is used to pay for road infrastructure maintenance and provision. Unfortunately, while the list of projects waiting to be undertaken has grown and grown the amount available to do it with has not. The level of Federal fuel tax – the source of the fund’s funding if you like – has remained the same since 1993.

Over here we face a different problem. In theory there should be more than enough cash to pay for roads. Of the £33 billion contribution made by drivers each year only a third goes back into spending on roads. What we do not have here is the US system of hypothecation for road funds. The RAC Foundation does not necessarily believe ring fencing a proportion of the tax received is the best way forward – after all spending requirements can change year to year and the amount of money set aside from motoring taxation may or may not be enough to enough to meet the needs – however it would at least send out the right message to drivers. That is, a defined proportion of what you pay is then returned to you in kind: spent on one of our most important national assets.

Already there are many sections of the road network where there is no spare peak time capacity. There is simply no slack in the system. Ironically this is what will make – in the short term – the massive investment harder to bear for many drivers. It is rare that road works – improvement or maintenance – do not have an impact on traffic flow so for those drivers already negotiating the busiest stretches of motorway the works will potentially add to their woes.

The job of managing the works programme is made harder by the stretching of the peak time travel periods. I can testify to that.

At the weekend I made a journey around the M25, along the southern section and I got stuck in traffic. The congestion was, according to the BBC’s travel presenter, the routine Saturday morning jam. Not Monday, not Friday, but Saturday.

Given what the man on the radio said and the fact that that I had experienced similar conditions the previous week you could argue that journey time reliability was actually very good: reliably slow. You could say the fault was mine for not allowing enough time for my journey.

But that is a depressing scenario. We must halt this slide towards lower and lower expectations and get a grip on how the road network is operated, funded and developed.

The RAC Foundation backs the Highways Agency and its initiatives such as Smart Motorways and All Lane running. We believe these latest proposals offer scope for significant reform that will benefit motorists. But we do not want to see an opportunity squandered. We should regard this as only the first point on the journey of change rather than the final destination. And when people ask why is investment and change necessary then we should point out the human cost of gridlock as much as the economic one.

Today’s news about a huge hike in the maximum level of fine that can be imposed on a speeding motorist casts a spotlight on what a magistrate’s sentencing powers actually are. Looking at speeding in particular, we see that it is a summary only offence, which means it is almost always dealt with at a Magistrates’ Court, though the case can be committed to the Crown Court for sentencing.

But presuming those on the bench decide to exercise their own powers, how will they set a fine? According to the Sentencing Guidelines Council there are three core elements:

“The amount of the fine must reflect the seriousness of the offence.

“The court must also take into account the financial circumstances of the offender; this applies whether it has the effect of increasing or reducing the fine. Normally a fine should be of an amount that is capable of being paid within 12 months.

“The aim is for the fine to have an equal impact on offenders with different financial circumstances; it should be a hardship but should not force the offender below a reasonable ‘subsistence’ level.”

The guidelines say a speeding offence attracts a Level 3 fine (which under the new regime will have a maximum limit of £4,000) or Level 4 if it is on the motorway (new maximum of £10,000)

Taking into account an offender’s income sounds sensible. What is surprising and not fully explained is why there has been such a huge increase in the maximum fine level now. What is the problem that is trying to be solved? Is there a large number of wealthy speeders for whom the current deterrent is not enough?

Interestingly, the number of people breaking the speed limit, in free flow traffic, has been falling on most roads for the best part of a decade as Department for Transport figures showed last week. Clearly there are still many who are defying the rules but it does suggest that, overall, motorists are becoming more law abiding rather than less.

Ministers should consider introducing a new scrappage scheme aimed at taking the oldest and most polluting diesel cars off the road.

Over the past two decades consumers have increasingly been buying diesels because of the better fuel consumption they achieve compared to petrol powered cars.

On a like for like basis diesels also emit fewer CO2 emissions.

This shift in buying habits means that of the 28 million cars on the road today, 10 million are diesels. In 1994 there were just 1.6 million diesels.

However diesel cars have historically tended to emit significantly more particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) than petrol cars both of which are linked to poor air quality and health issues. It is estimated that in the UK poor air quality currently reduces average life expectancy at birth by six months.

Over recent years so-called Euro standards have helped achieve significant reductions in PM emissions from diesels. However these have not been matched by falls in NOx. Only now does the latest set of standards – Euro 6 – offer the prospect of a reduction in this too.

But because cars have an average life span of more than a decade it will take several years for the newer, cleaner, models to work their way through the fleet.

Meanwhile drivers of the oldest vehicles may face increasing restrictions on their use.

A new report for the RAC Foundation by the environmental consultants Ricardo-AEA says there is an argument for discriminating against the highest emitting diesel vehicles in favour of other, less polluting, vehicle technologies. For example this could mean differential pricing in the London Congestion Charging Zone.

Many people believed that by buying diesels they would get better fuel consumption and help fight global warming through low CO2 emissions.

But such was the focus on the planet that policy makers missed the impact older diesel models in particular have on health in urban areas.The car industry has risen to the challenge of cleaning up diesel engines but we still need to deal with the legacy of the dirtiest diesels.

To hasten the take up of cars with the healthiest credentials ministers should consider another scrappage scheme. If they do not local politicians across the country will increasingly take matters into their own hands and restrict the movement of those vehicles which most compromise our well being.

You have to ask: if it is important to promote the take up of electric vehicles through the plug-in car grant scheme then shouldn’t government money also be made available to speed up the cleansing of the fleet in air quality terms?

According to the Ricardo-AEA report, “transport contributes some 30% of total nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and 20% of total PM emissions, but these are mostly concentrated on the road network in towns and cities where the majority of air quality limit breaches occur and where the population density is often high.”

The report also notes that EU limits on air quality-related emissions are much less stringent than those used by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Under the tighter WHO guidelines more than nine out of ten (91-96%) of people living in urban areas would be classed as being exposed to excess levels of the smallest type of particulates (PM2.5) which can get deep into the lungs.


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