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No pain, no gain - the argument against a revenue-neutral congestion charge. 20/11/2003
Road-user charging is a political hot potato. It probably ranks alongside the introduction of the compulsory use of seat-belts and the wearing of helmets by motor cyclists, in its ability to raise the blood pressure of the motoring public. It has and will continue to generate, massive amounts of press coverage wherever the subject is raised. At issue is the degree to which a previously free-at-the-point-of-use service is now to be charged for, against the level of improvement that any such system may bring to the lives of motorists and the wider community.

The prospect of increasing the financial burden of the electorate in order to bring about a specific objective, other than the pure generation of revenue, is one which politicians treat with extreme caution. In a speech he gave in November this year, the UK's Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, admitted that this was 'difficult political territory' but that 'stark choices' had to be made. Yet a new report has urged the British government - and by implication, governments elsewhere - to do precisely that, arguing, in effect, that there is no gain without pain.

The report, by the Institute of Public Policy Research in London, suggests that far from achieving its objective, the government's preferred option of a revenue-neutral system of congestion charging will encourage car growth by nearly 7% and increase the volume of so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 5%. It goes on to argue that vehicle use accounts for a significant proportion of all carbon gases and is capable of negating the very real improvements being made elsewhere, towards the government's obligations under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

And this is despite European legislation which has, over the last few years, sought to drive down the volume of harmful gases pumped into the air by road transport. Air quality standards for benzene and carbon monoxide, proposed by the European Commission in 1999 proposed a 70% reduction in these gases over the following eleven years and were in addition to reductions already agreed. This has now been followed by proposals currently before the Commission for a change in focus which would see the size of particulates targeted by legislation reduced by 75%.

"To date, CO2 emissions from increases in road traffic, have been largely offset by improvements in vehicle efficiency," said Julie Foley, author of the report Putting the Brakes on Climate Change. "But in future, further fuel efficiency improvements are unlikely to keep pace with traffic growth. Our current system of motoring taxation means that motorists do not pay for the external costs their journey imposes on others, such as congestion and pollution."

Without further action designed to curb people's increasing dependence on private car use, research indicates that road transport's share of the total UK CO2 emissions, the greenhouse gas most closely identified with global warming, could rise to 29% by 2020 overtaking the domestic, industry and service sectors.

Although specifically aimed at the situation in England, there can be little doubt that many of the findings and recommendations of the report will find a resonance elsewhere in the developed world and, to a lesser extent, amongst the developing nations of Asia, Eastern Europe and South America, as car ownership increases exponentially.

The problem could most effectively be dealt with, says the report, though the imposition of congestion charging, since it would target drivers using the roads during periods of high demand and require from them a higher premium, as compared to off-peak users. But the charge would need to be made in addition to existing levels of taxation since a revenue neutral charge could actually increase traffic levels and CO2 emissions by making the average costs of rural motoring even cheaper. "Congestion charging should be one of the key policy measures taken forward in the Government's review of the Ten Year Plan for Transport in 2004." said Foley. "But given that fuel costs are expected to continue to fall, the results suggest that it does not appear to make sense to introduce congestion charging on a revenue neutral basis with offsetting fuel duty reductions."

Meanwhile, plans by the UK government to introduce a distance-based charging system for heavy goods vehicles in 2006 may need to be postponed because of the difficulties surrounding the European Commission draft Directive on tolling technology.

For further information, contact:
Julie Foley of the Institute of Public Policy Research, London, England. Tel: #44 20 7470 6118, E-mail: j.foley@ippr.org.uk
 
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