Road pricing: if it's fair, it might just work

Politicians are wary of plans to charge drivers to use the Queen's highway. But why not, given that we're now accustomed to pay-as-you-go?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak at The Royal Docks in London
Would Rishi Sunak be well advised to consider road pricing as a way to swell Treasury coffers? Credit: Simon Walker/HM Treasury

Put together, the words ‘road’ and ‘pricing’ have always struck fear into the hearts of drivers – not to mention ruling political parties. But once again, a UK government is investigating revolutionising how we pay to drive. The last time this happened, 11 years ago, it was dropped after protesters delivered the largest petition ever seen up to that point. 

This time things might be different. In the 11 years since roads pricing was last mooted, the way we pay for things has changed. Look at how we own mobile phones and even our cars nowadays. Technology is developing at a gallop and more people than ever are comfortable with paying as they go. 

Unlike then, we’re not in the run-up to a general election and the government has a strong mandate. From a financial point of view, in the wake of Covid-19, the Treasury is skint. It needs to raise money and it needs to do so while easing drivers out of their petrol and diesel cars and into electric models. 

But what does ‘road pricing’ really mean? Currently details are sketchy. Presumably any new tax system will rely less on Vehicle Excise Duty (VED or car tax) and the duty we pay on fuel, more on paying per mile driven. Sounds fair to me. After all, we currently pay tax on the distance we drive, it’s just via fuel duty and the VAT levied on it. Paying per mile would simply make that whole process more transparent. 

It could also be a more flexible system, able to adjust as trends and technology change. The government will want to ‘encourage’ more drivers to transition to electric cars. The Treasury is going to need a way to raise money from the increasing numbers of car owners who will be switching to electric motoring. And if we could see the money we’re spending going back into the roads to patch up our creaking network, so much the better. 

As more drivers are encouraged to buy electric cars, fuel duty flowing into the Treasury will decrease. EVs are also partially subsidised by the government

The problem with the last time road pricing was seriously discussed was the way the message was delivered. It was rumoured we would have to pay up to £1.50 a mile. That would make driving from London to Manchester cost more than £300, clearly ridiculous on top of fuel and other running costs. Hardly surprising that 1.7 million signed the petition.

Then there’s the name. What exactly does ‘road pricing’ mean? At best, it’s woolly, at worst it sounds straight from the 1950s. We know this government likes a slogan so hopefully it’ll come up with something that more clearly describes how we pay to drive. But it also needs to develop and communicate the detail behind its plans more clearly, something it hasn’t proved brilliant at thus far.

I think UK drives are as ready as they’ve ever been for an alternative way to pay for their motoring. If it’s sold to us as a fair way to own and drive a car, we can see how it’s going to work and who’s going to benefit (preferably us), bring it on. 

But if the concept is a knee-jerk attack on car drivers because we’re an easy target, or seen as some kind of stealth tax, then it’ll be a struggle to sell. Even more so if it doesn’t have the flexibility or sophistication to keep up with the rapidly changing way we’re driving. 

Whatever form it takes, if the detail leaks out in dribs and drabs; if some drivers are overly penalised for where they happen to live; or if we’re promised it’s going to be a ‘world-beating system’ and then the technology takes months to implement, I don’t hold out much hope. 

But if this government can land a truly revolutionary and fair way to make drivers pay to go motoring, it’ll have succeeded where a string of previous administrations have shied away. The first thing it needs to do is banish that meaningless moniker ‘road pricing’.

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