In his first major speech since the election, Alastair Darling told an audience at the Social Market Foundation that a major overhaul of transport issues was needed to prevent the country reaching a gridlocked state in the next 20 years.

He said a feasibility study carried out last year for the Department of Transport proposed replacing fuel taxes with charges ranging from 2p a mile on the quietest roads up to £1.34 per mile on the busiest roads.

However, it is unlikely that any more than 0.5% of road users would have to pay the full charge.

The national charging scheme could cut urban congestion in half, Mr Darling said, while actually costing most road users less than they currently pay in fuel taxes.

“The prize is getting more out of the road network, therefore improving choice for drivers with more reliable journey times. The objective is to allow people and goods to move as efficiently as possible and at the same time meeting our environmental objectives,” he told delegates.

“For any road pricing scheme developed, we would ensure that incentives for cleaner vehicles are safeguarded in order to contribute to meeting our targets on CO2 levels,” he added.

He also quashed fears that this would lead to less investment in public transport systems: “We will continue to improve public transport – that’s a given. In any overall package of measures to tackle congestion, improved public transport is absolutely essential.”

The system would work with satellite monitoring systems such as the ones people already have in their cars for location and direction advice. Mr Darling said working with existing companies would minimise the amount of infrastructure that would have to be built.

One large insurance company is already piloting a “pay as you drive” insurance package to calculate the insurance premium on a monthly basis based on how much you drive, rewarding those who use their cars least.

So far this has led to an average reduction of about 30% in the cost of insurance.

A pilot scheme for the road pricing scheme in the UK is due to be announced next month and is likely to be in an area large enough to include urban and rural roads. Local authorities are also being invited to come forward with innovative solutions to tackle congestion problems in their local areas.

So far, Mr Darling seems to have achieved a broad consensus of support for the system, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokespeople largely in favour. In addition, groups such as Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000 gave their seal of approval alongside unlikely bedfellows such as the CBI and the Freight Transport Association.

Friends of the Earth did, however, say that the charging should not replace other taxes, but run on top of them to discourage people from using the roads. Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner said:

“Rising traffic is clogging our roads and is a major source of climate-changing gases. Road-pricing has a role to play in reducing traffic and cutting emissions, but it must also run alongside other taxes and policies to reduce traffic, cut transport’s contribution to climate change and get motorists to drive more-fuel efficient vehicles.
Any road-pricing scheme must make a real contribution to cutting climate emissions as well as cutting congestion.”

Whether the same level of support is forthcoming from the general public, however, remains to be seen. Early signs are fairly encouraging, though, as the results of a Mori poll found that an overwhelming majority of the public would be in favour of carrying the GPS systems in their cars, with only 16% of drivers against.

“What is certain is that the problem of congestion is going to get worse,” Mr Darling said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

By David Hopkins

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