In defence of road pricing


altAccording to the Daily Telegraph, road pricing is back on the government's agenda.

Quite right. We pay differently for the particular dishes we order in restaurants – so why do we not pay differently for the particular road space we occupy? If we order caviar, we expect to pay more than if we order cod roe. If we choose to drive into town at peak weekday times, we should expect to pay more than if we drive on some wide-open rural road on a Sunday afternoon.

If restaurant meals were funded out of taxation, we'd all be ordering the caviar, and there would be a chronic shortage. And it's because we pay for roads through a standards 50p-a-litre fuel tax that we all want to drive into town at 8.45am on a Monday – causing traffic chaos for everyone, extra costs for hauliers, not to mention extra noise, pollution and accidents as we stop-start in queues.

Road pricing would make people aware of the value of our roads – indeed, of the value of specific roads at specific times. As such, it would encourage people to use them more sparingly. And it prompt planners to put new roads where motorists were demonstrating their willingness to pay, rather than where politicians demanded some vote – catching white-elephant infrastructure.

But the public just don't trust politicians to make road pricing fair. That's why a million people signed a petition opposing it. They think the charge will be a new tax, not a replacement for car and fuel taxes. They don't believe that the authorities will invest in alternatives to using the car (like better public transport). They don't trust politicians with the data or where and when they drive.

The only solution, if we are to curb congestion, is to put the roads into the hands of independent roads trusts - rather like was imagined when the 'road fund tax' on cars was first introduced. Ensure the trust or trusts provide alternatives to those who want to avoid the charge by leaving the car at home. Let them spend revenues on where drivers demonstrate their willingness to pay for access, rather than on what officials think is good for us. Maybe that would restore trust, and get the traffic moving freely at last.