Tolls on UK roads to make polluter pay

Road tolls rather than more road-building are the answer to Britain's transport problems, a major Government-commissioned transport study has concluded.

Tolls would “internalize” transport’s environmental and social costs as well as easing congestion on British roads increasingly choked by growing numbers of cars, up from 26m in 1997 to 33m now, former BA chief Sir Rod Eddington said in the Treasury-commissioned report.

Transport is a growing contributor to climate change, producing around a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2004, Sir Rod said. “The transport sector, including aviation, should meet its full environmental costs,” he said.

“For economic reasons as well as social or environmental, all transport users should meet all their external economic, social or environmental costs,” he said, quoting the Stern review’s “pro-environment is also pro-growth” conclusions.

Tolls could cut congestion by half and bring £28bn annual benefits to the economy, Sir Rod said.

His report also advises making more of existing public transport links with a series of low-cost measures, such as lengthening platforms or double-decker trains.

“Because the UK is already well connected, the key economic challenge is therefore to improve the performance of the existing network” – easing overcrowding on trains and roads in a way that targets problem areas and times.

The report also strongly backs a major expansion of the cycle network.

But although he rejected major investment Sir Rod did recommend some new infrastructure, and said that the planning system needs to adapt to the changing needs of transport to let major projects go ahead.

Responding to the report, transport minister Douglas Alexander said road tolls could be in operation within ten years and pilot schemes within 4-5 years. “I think most informed commentators realise we can’t simply build our way out of the challenge of congestion,” he said, adding that road pricing had to be coupled with an expansion of public transport networks.

The Transport 2000 group campaigning for greener transport said that road pricing could only be effective if people were given alternatives:

“We need to see action on road charging, with a clear package of measures to bring in a national scheme while investing in alternatives.

“We need a growing railway, and while we might not need a high speed line, we will need big increases in capacity to cater for increased use with road pricing and new development.

Aviation will account for 46% of UK carbon emissions by 2050, the group said, and more airports would mean more carbon emissions: “The Eddington report makes it clear that a lot of the airport expansion supported by the government is not essential to the economy. We need a rethink.”

Friends of the Earth welcomed the overall findings and rejection of large-scale road-building in favour of public transport, but opposed the suggestion of airport expansion.

“Aviation is on a collision course with UK climate targets, and airport expansion will send us in totally the wrong direction,” FoE said.

The Conservatives backed the road toll proposals but called for the money generated to be “closely linked” to investment in new transport links, calling for greener cars instead to curb carbon emissions.

The full report can be accessed here.

Goska Romanowicz

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