Road user charging
1 April, 2007

James MacGregor, Senior Researcher, NLGN
Parliamentary Monitor

The very concept of road pricing is controversial. In a recent YouGov poll, roughly half of respondents were against road user charging in principal, regardless of the details of any scheme. The well-publicised Number 10 petition uncovers a mistrust of the concept on the grounds of perceived increased costs and loss of privacy. But road pricing appears to be the only way to address the transport challenges of the 21st century. Eddington has identified variable road charging as the only way to avoid the economic, environmental and social consequences of congestion.

The rationale for introducing road charging is persuasive. Rising prosperity and a growing economy will make ever greater demands on the UK’s roads. Either a big increase in road capacity is needed, or demand for existing capacity must be constrained. The scale of the road building programme required to meet future demand makes it politically untenable. Central government is left little choice but to win the political argument for road pricing in the face of mounting scepticism.

Local experience gives Government reasons for optimism. The Greater London Authority is the shining beacon of success. The incumbent mayor fought and won the 2000 election on a manifesto with congestion charging at its heart. A sceptical citizenry has been gradually won over.

But, local experiences have not been all positive. Edinburgh is London’s antithesis. After a widespread negative public reaction to congestion charging proposals, the city held a referendum. The scheme was rejected by an overwhelming 74 per cent of the electorate. Hopes of a road charging scheme in Edinburgh are dashed for the foreseeable future.

Edinburgh shows that winning political support for road charging is not easy. But the London experience shows that it is possible. The city’s success is not based solely on charging for road space. The Greater London Authority has introduced a whole raft of transport measures that support congestion charging. Bus and rail services have visibly improved while London Underground works to reverse the effects of decades of under-investment. Bus routes and the road infrastructure have been modified to prioritise public transport. London’s transport influence looks set to spread outside of its geographical boundaries with the GLA exerting new influence over arterial rail routes.

These measures form a package that offers a realistic alternative to the car. London government has used its unique set of tools to build a joined-up public transport system. The same tools were not available to the City of Edinburgh. However, without offering real alternatives to the car, it is difficult to see how any road user charging scheme can work regardless of the different structures and powers across the UK.

For Eddington, joining-up transport measures as in London is an essential part of future transport planning. Just introducing road pricing is not enough; the state must take a bottom-up, evidence-based approach to transport policy. These policies need to be joined-up in coherent transport strategies. Further, the state must ensure that citizens find road pricing acceptable. The worst outcomes would be for the state to invest in road pricing and then fail to deliver in the face of public opposition.

Central government realises the pivotal role local government can play in winning public approval. The latest round of the Transport Innovation Fund requires investment in local road demand management schemes. This effectively devolves political responsibility to local government. Without grasping this opportunity, a national scheme will be difficult to implement.

Local political leadership offers to deliver on this national policy. Democratically accountable councils are well-placed to draw together the different parts of the local state to build a complete strategy. Councils are also well-placed to work across the sectors to understand the needs of business and the impact transport policies will have on the local economy.

Most importantly, local politicians are capable of taking responsibility for locally designed transport schemes in ways national politicians cannot. Council leaders and elected mayors are asked to take the political risks and reap the political rewards. This kind of brave local leadership can create the environment where a national scheme is possible. Without it, a national scheme seems a long way off.