Thursday, 18 August 2011

UK Conservative Party torn on congestion charging

Guardian columnist Dave Hill has an interesting take on the contradictions between the populism of British Conservative Party politicians who resist expansion of congestion charging, and their avowedly free market credentials (which would support economically efficient road pricing). Mayor Boris Johnson took the populist move to abolish the Western extension of London's congestion charge zone, and has been mute about doing anything else. The Conservative Party has tended to take a negative view of road pricing, except for charging lorries on a revenue neutral basis (in order to charge foreign lorries which tend to avoid paying the high fuel tax and vehicle ownership taxes in the UK. Large fuel tanks are known to be filled in lower tax countries before entering the UK). However, it also has MPs and Councillors who are acolytes of the likes of Milton Friedman, who supported road pricing. Populism clashing with free market economics.  

Hill makes the conclusion that as public transport users pay fares, so should “motorists pay a fare” to use the roads, forgetting that with 40% of the price of fuel in the UK being tax, they already do pay, and some.

However, setting that aside (bearing in mind the Guardian is a leftwing newspaper and so somewhat unsympathetic to motorists, but sympathetic to public transport), the article makes a sound point. London could make money out of charging for the scarcity of road space, to fix up potholes, improve junctions, even help fund the dream of the Deputy Mayor for new tunnelled routes (one which I sympathise with). Yet there is an inability among politicians in the UK to coherently present road pricing as something that can benefit motorists.

Perhaps the reason lies not only in the current economic climate, when charging anyone more for something is political suicide, but also in the high current levels of motoring taxes. Herein lies where the future of road pricing debate in the UK must be fought – for I doubt if there will be any major expansion of road pricing, without a countervailing reduction in some other form of taxation.  It is reasonable to presume that given the Labour Party did such an appalling job in handling the issue (as being motivated by wanting to reduce car traffic is unlikely to be popular with motorists), the Conservatives might know how to manage it and be seen as not "waging war" on the motorist (given how the current government has already explicitly stated it wont be doing that, seen by reducing petrol excise and abolishing an unpopular motorway bus lane).  However, the problem is that a party called "conservative" is not necessarily dominated by a culture of wanting radical change.

For now it appears the Conservatives will embrace lorry road user charging in the vignette/time based charging form, and will not interfere with councils doing as they wish with congestion charging, but wont be pushing any road pricing agenda themselves on private motorists.  What a pity.

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