Two-tier roads and the evasion of political responsibility

Recent media reports suggest that among the Coalition’s range of options for the future of road provision is a system of two-tier vehicle taxation, with those using motorways paying a higher rate.  The tone of some of the press coverage suggests that this might be an Aunt Sally idea – a nonsense that has been put into the public domain to be knocked down, while what Government really wants to do can then be taken forward as something more sensible; but this is a Government whose disdain for evidence grows by the week.  Moreover, I have no doubt that the Civil Servants working on the issue know the problems.  This looks horribly like another Bright Idea from SPAD City, the brainchild of Special Advisers; but it’s instructive in many ways of the thought processes behind the coalition.

The problems are obvious.  Motorways are designed to carry heavy traffic, at speed, and to do so with relative safety.  Other roads simply are not.  For decades, getting through traffic out of towns has been a central aim of transport policy; billions have been spent on bypasses, often justified on environmental and safety grounds as well as to reduce journey times. Even that most pernicious and underrated of the effects of heavy traffic, community severance, has been prayed in aid.  In other words, for this proposal to be credible, Government thinking on either the value of those benefits or on the level of diversion must have changed.  But there is no evidence that this is the case.

Moreover, there are huge practical issues.  Bureaucratically it would be a nightmare – would you have occasional user permits? What if you wanted to change your tax band during the year? This is the Government, remember, that is closing DVLA local offices and slashing hundreds of DVLA jobs.  Online? Well, perhaps, but there are plenty of motorists who don’t have online access.  Throught the Post Office? Expensive, and likely to generate queues.  How much is this all going to cost?  And of course what about all those hard cases that will end up in the Daily Mail?

Enforcement? The media reports suggest using the existing ANPR cameras to read number plates.  Well, possibly – except that the ANPR reader that can reliably read number plates off the back of cars doing 70mph (or even 80mph if the Mr Toad tendency gets its way) in driving rain, with spray billowing out behind the car and a stiff gale rattling the camera on the gantry, to a level that would provide the certainty required to sustain a criminal prosecution, simply does not exist.  And more accurate methods of enforcement like DSRC tags would be hugely expensive, would require an entire new roadside infrastructure, and would – potentially – bring the system within the ambit of European legislation on electronic road tolling.  In other words, it’s a complete non-starter.

So why is the DfT floating these ideas?  Is this another symptom of the exodus of experienced staff as a result of Osborne’s cuts? Or is it really an admission that faced with the issues surrounding provision of roads, Government really doesn’t have a clue and is running scared of addressing the main issues – which are that Britain’s roads are unsustainably overcrowded, and that a return to the discredited politics of predict and provide is basically an expensive nonsense.

What this kind of proposal shows is a basic failure to get to grips with the real issue around roads provision. Tories (and one must assume Liberal Democrats, although one wonders just how much say poor Norman Baker gets at the big boys’ table) are locked into a number of unsustainable narratives around motoring – like the nonsensical rhetoric around the war on the motorist and the belief that you can build your way out of congestion (while simultaneously claiming to be the “greenest Government ever”).  The question of where the costs of motoring should fall – and of ensuring that those costs fully reflect the impact that road use imposes –  is firmly off the agenda.  The social implications of planning for a society based on car use in which a third do not have access to a car are swept away. And ultimately there is, as with almost every aspect of public service provision, a well-funded commercial lobby that sees a future privatisation as the road to profit.

When ideas as daft as this one are getting serious airtime, you know that something is up.  Transport policy is an area where the conventional narratives of market economics are bumping up against the realities of life – and our political system, based as it is around a neoliberal consensus, simply lacks the moral and intellectual equipment to deal with that clash.  A moment’s thought shows why we need a fundamental debate about transport and sustainability. A moment’s reflection on the nature of Westminster and media politics shows why we have so little prospect of getting one.

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