Down to Earth
Although Gordon Brown’s total tax take increased by £25 billion in the last financial year to bring it to a record £423 billion, feeding the inflated public sector is now so costly that even this huge amount does not leave enough to make up for ten year’s neglect of the nation’s road system.
Doing nothing is not an option. The consequences of inertia were spelt out in a report which he commissioned from his own guru, Sir Rod Eddington last December, who pointed out that an overstretched transport system would constrain economic growth.
Crucially though, when it came to public spending on roads, Sir Rod also gave Gordon the ultimate opt-out. He told the Chancellor that comprehensive road-pricing could cut congestion by half and produce economic benefits worth a total of £28 billion a year by 2025.
“Given the scale of the congestion challenge, I believe that there is no attractive alternative to road pricing,” he wrote. “Without a widespread scheme by 2015, the UK will require very significantly more transport infrastructure.”
Hidden in the small print though was a warning that is now proving only too prescient: “… road pricing on this scale is new and at this stage has unknown implementation costs. There are very significant risks and uncertainties involved in delivering a pricing policy, particularly around the technology needed for its delivery. Potential technologies exist but have never been used at a national level.” The costs, he estimated, could be between £10 and £60 billion.
However, there is an even more mundane show stopper. In 2005, 2,193,000 vehicle owners failed to pay their vehicle excise duty, compared with 1,240,000 in 2004. One in 15 are dodging road tax and speeding fines and, even more striking, more than a million speeding fines are not paid each year, partly because the drivers cannot be traced.
I have seen successful road pricing schemes in North America and Europe; the key to their success is firm but fair enforcement, based on an accurate database and the active co-operation of the majority of drivers.
In contrast, a recent survey of the data held by our own Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency showed that 32 percent of records contained errors, and 10 percent contained significant errors.
Therein, lies the problem. To process all these data requires a massive database, on a scale that has never yet been attempted, yet the government is unable even to maintain an accurate record of vehicle registrations and drivers. New Labour are already notorious for their expensive IT failures, so the chances of them maintaining an accurate road charging database are next to nil. Without it, comprehensive road pricing cannot succeed.
To all intents and purposes, this immensely ambitious project is dead, leaving Gordon Brown squeezed between rising congestion and the need for more road capacity, with nowhere to go and no money in the kitty
Tomorrow, I offer some ideas for the way forward.
Owen Paterson is MP for North Shropshire and Shadow Minister of State for Transport