Transport plans pave way for nationwide road tolls and congestion charging

Transport Secretary Alastair Darling unveiled the government's strategy for the future of transport this week, including proposals for road tolls for motorists across the country as well as the go-ahead for London's Crossrail project.

Mr Darling said that the The Future of Transport White Paper would maximise the benefits of transport while minimising the negative impact on people and the environment.

Speaking at the launch of the White Paper, Mr Darling said: "Looking ahead, the challenges we face are clear. Our job is to help people travel, not to stop them. The challenge for us is how we meet people's need and wish to do so whilst meeting our environmental aims."

The paper acknowledges that even excluding aviation, transport is responsible for about a quarter of total UK carbon dioxide emissions, and last week the Department for Transport was given joint responsibility with Defra and the DTI to help reduce emissions in this country (see related story).

Despite this acknowledgement, however, many targets for reducing the number of road users, and increasing train passenger numbers, which were included in John Prescott's 10-year plan in 2000, are being scrapped.

Instead, Mr Darling warned motorists that they could pay up to £1.30 per mile in a nationwide road-user charging scheme in place of current road taxes and fuel duty. In a foreword to the paper, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "The key is how, not how much, motorists pay for road use. We will do the work necessary to allow the hard decisions to be taken nearer the time."

"The Road Pricing Feasibility Study concludes that a national scheme has the potential to cut congestion by about a half as well as providing environmental benefits," Mr Darling said. "But for a scheme to work it would need general public acceptance and a great deal of preparation work over a number of years."

The proposed scheme would charge motorists according to time, place and distance, so that drivers in less congested rural areas would be charged less than those driving on busier, more congested roads. However, it is unlikely to come into force in the next ten years.

In the meantime, the paper said that pilot schemes could be launched locally to test the technology. In addition a number of congestion charging schemes could be introduced.

"There needs to be debate about what would make pricing acceptable to motorists. We must build a public consensus around the objectives for road pricing and how to use the revenues," Mr Darling said.

The lack of clear demand management has angered many who were hoping for renewed support for public transport. Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth's transport campaigner, said: "Alastair Darling has chickened out of producing a transport strategy to cut traffic levels and tackle climate change. This is not a transport strategy which works for people, communities or the environment. The continuing attachment to road building leaves a black cloud hanging over the countryside."

John Thurso MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary, said: "This White Paper is something of a curate's egg. It certainly raises many issues and asks the right questions, but is notably light on answers. Much is said about the rate of traffic growth and its consequences, but very little attention is given to the causes of that growth. It is vital that emissions are not only halted, but reduced. This will be the measure of success that the White Paper will be judged by."

In addition, the government announced that it would be delaying the introduction of a rise in fuel duty, originally scheduled for September this year.

Friends of the Earth Executive Director Tony Juniper said: "This decision reveals a failure of joined up environmental thinking, right at the heart of Government. On the day that Ministers admitted that their transport policies have failed and that traffic levels will continue to increase on Britain's roads, Gordon Brown has broken a promise to implement one of the few incentives designed to get drivers out of their cars. The Government's own transport white paper published today states that one of the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions is through measures affecting the cost of fuel. Brown is pouring cheap oil on the fires of environmental destruction for short term political gain."

By David Hopkins



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