On the face of it – when it comes to the roads - Pay as You Go is not a phrase to be mentioned in polite company. It is guaranteed to raise the ire of motorists across the nation; after all, didn’t almost two million people sign a Downing Street petition against road pricing back in 2007? And didn’t that petition result in road pricing being dropped as official policy by the Labour Government?
Well indeed it did and for understandable reasons. But the RAC Foundation sees a day when such a scheme might be inevitable. Why? Because we have some rather big problems to address and no one seems to be dealing with them adequately. Here are some of them:
- A 33% increase in traffic by 2025 because of population growth and economic recovery
- An associated increase in congestion and unreliable journey times
- An imperative to meet targets for cutting carbon emissions from road transport
- Reduced spending on road infrastructure because of financial and political constraints
- A significant fall in fuel duty revenue as cars become more fuel efficient and increasingly use ultra low carbon fuels such as electricity
At the heart of the matter is a lack of vision for the road network. There is plenty of political talk about the railways but nothing strategic planned for our highways and byways which are used by most of us, most of the time, to get around.
Let me be clear. Pay as You Go is seen as an alternative to the current method of road user taxation, not additional. Such a scheme would lead to behavioural change and a reduction in congestion. This would be good for drivers and good for the environment. It would also address the issue of falling fuel duty revenue in the decades to come as people switch away from hydro-carbons.
Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, does not support road user charging, at least not in this parliament. However he does recognise it could well have a part to play in the future. And that is a start. No Pay as You Go system is not going to be introduced overnight, but if it is a thought to be a solution for all the problems detailed above then its introduction needs to be considered sooner rather than later.
Now it might be that ministers have some other secret plan up their sleeves to deal with the future. Unfortunately they seem rather reluctant to tell anyone what it is. In the absence of that plan, Pay as You Go might well be the best route ahead.