Andrew Clark, transport correspondent
Friday June 10, 2005
The transport secretary, Alistair Darling, has angered green activists by insisting that a Mini would pay the same rate as a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle under his plans for a nationwide road charging scheme.
Mr Darling believes it would add "unnecessary complexity" to levy higher tariffs on vehicles which consume more fuel and cause extra pollution.
"If we make it more complex, it would be very difficult to get it going," he said. "This sounds like another complexity which would be a barrier to doing things."
His remarks were greeted with dismay by environmentalists, who pointed out that road charging is likely to involve a cut in fuel duty - which would mean less incentive than at present to choose smaller, fuel efficient cars.
Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000, said targets agreed under the Kyoto treaty require a dramatic drop in Britain's greenhouse gas emissions by 2010: "Without some kind of differential rate between cars, this scheme could be counter-productive."
In a speech to the Social Market Foundation yesterday, Mr Darling gave further details of his desire to introduce charges of between 2p and £1.34 a mile for all vehicles on Britain's roads within 10 to 15 years.
Mr Darling said action was crucial to keep traffic moving: "Think about the alternative: the prospect of a system becoming slowly but surely gridlocked, like you can see in many American and Far Eastern cities every day of the year."
Up to £200m a year of public money from a new transport innovation fund will be offered to towns and cities willing to pilot road charging or other congestion-busting initiatives.
"There are problems that cannot wait for a national solution," he said. "We need to get on with these local schemes now."
Local authorities in the West Midlands could be among the early takers. Seven councils of varying political hues, including Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, yesterday said they were forming a coalition to "kickstart the debate" on congestion.
Opposition parties have given cautious backing to the principle of road user charging. But the shadow transport secretary, Alan Duncan, has written to the government with 14 questions - including a request for an assurance that the scheme would not be a backdoor increase in taxation.
Mr Duncan said: "The devil is in the detail and I call again on Alistair Darling to answer the questions and concerns that have been put to him."
When asked yesterday for a guarantee that motorists would be no worse off, Mr Darling would only say: "My objective is not to penalise motorists. The objective of road pricing is to free up roadspace."
Experts predict an enormous challenge in fitting all of Britain's 25m vehicles with a "black box" capable of being tracked by satellite.
Opposition to road pricing is growing among businesses which could face higher costs: National Car Rental described the plans as a "Big Brother" proposal which would infringe personal privacy.
The company's senior vice president, John Leigh, said: "The government's preoccupation with gridlock and our road network grinding to a halt is nothing short of scare tactics ... Surely these funds could be better used to improve Britain's roads, rather than looking at new ways of collecting money."
Car industry in the UK
Transport in the UK
Oil and petrol
Department for Transport
Department for Transport road traffic figures 2001
Transport for London Street Management
International Road Federation