July 2004
Proposals to charge motorists per mile to use the country's road network have surfaced again .
Suggestions that such a move could be revenue neutral are risible, given the huge set-up costs involved and the propensity of politicians for stealth taxation. While the infrastructure and related technology remain some ten to fifteen years into the future, the current debate has focused commentators' minds on the 'costs of car usage'.
In this analysis we show that there is no justification for any increase in the total costs of car ownership and use, and that the overall burden of taxation on road transport is already too high.
Changes in vehicle construction and efficiency, road design, emissions technology, and their impact on individuals and society mean that the disbenefits of car use have decreased substantially over the last decade. Moreover since most cost-benefit calculations on car use commonly omit the majority of benefits completely, there is a strong case for reducing the overall burden of cost to motorists.
The listed 'costs' of car use include air pollution and its consequences, injuries and fatalities from road crashes, traffic noise, impact on buildings and materials, harm to the rural environment, congestion, and vehicle disposal. In 1999 the highest 'calculated' annual total cost of road transport in general from these and other factors was £42 billion, at a time when motorists paid £35 billion in taxes and duties each year. Since then emissions technology and fuel quality enhancements have reduced pollution from cars significantly (other vehicles less so) so that air quality has increased; car design and medical advances have improved substantially and — despite the shocking rise in annual road fatalities in the UK for 2003 caused by diverting road safety policy into the failed speed camera programme — there are fewer deaths and injuries on the roads; bypasses are constructed that are shown by published research to 'protect the environment'; roads are quieter through thin layer surface technology; and cars are increasingly recyclable with costs of disposal to be borne by manufacturers. At the same time as these 'costs' of road transport have fallen, UK road users now pay an increased annual total of motoring taxes and duties amounting to £46 billion.
Benefits from road transport seldom listed in sham cost-benefit exercises from environmental groups include contributions to the economy from jobs in vehicle manufacture and sales, goods transported and services conveyed by road, vehicle servicing and after-market supplies / accessories, and quality of life benefits from freedom of mobility. The freedom of mobility from car ownership and use is so powerfully felt that in a survey reported by Auto Express magazine, a majority of 17-year olds would rather give up the right to vote than the right to drive a car. Such is the degree to which politicians and greens are out of touch with reality. When quantified, it is beyond belief that these and other benefits of car usage and road transport generally — coupled to the ever increasing price paid through motoring taxes and duties currently costed at £46 billion — would not far and away exceed the continually falling yearly 'costs' of road transport. This growing net benefit to society should be rewarded with lower motoring taxes and duties.
Motorists currently pay one-seventh of all tax revenues. Air quality is better than for 400 years and our roads are safer and less polluted than our homes. In return, investment in our essential road network is so poor that the backlog of road repairs and improvements amounts to tens of billions of pounds, while road users find themselves restricted and demonised for no valid reason. Transport 'managers' appear to have the goal of increasing congestion wherever possible. And while Delhi bans diesel engined buses, London attacks car users and increases the number of polluting buses on the streets.
Countering this view we read, from the ETA:
"Whilst it is true that emissions from road transport are forecast to fall in the future this does not constitute a case for seeing the taxes on road transport fall as well. Even if the forecast reductions in pollution emitted by road transport do materialise the demand for environmental quality is likely to grow significantly over that same period as well. There is therefore no prima facie case for cutting current taxes in the foreseeable future"
Such 'logic' claims that, although one of the key claimed environmental justifications for levying 'green' taxes on road use is (and will remain) less and less valid, even in the face of growing traffic volumes, the level of tax and duty applied to road users should not be reduced simply because it is 'likely' that demand for 'environmental quality' will grow. This vague nonsense represents such self-justifying hand-waving as would power a large wind farm.
"Motorists must be protected against excessive charges set by governments, central and local, to raise money. So charges must be fair and transparent, and overseen by an independent regulator."
RAC Foundation
Principles set out and agreed by most of the players in this debate include the proviso that 'green' transport taxes should be distinct, non-discriminatory and defensibly quantified. Otherwise they will be seen merely as unfair additional transport taxes.
The level playing field suggested by these principles is light years away from the reality of road use in 2004. There is no quantified element of any tax or duty that is distinct by virtue of being identified with any particular 'cost' of road use. The 'fuel duty escalator' introduced under a global warming banner was later admitted — by an assistant to the Chancellor of the day, during the fuel protests — to be a means of plugging a fiscal black hole in the Treasury; the policy was floated under a green flag of convenience to try make it more palatable. That flag continues to wave to this day.
Levels of tax and duty, as currently targeted, are highly discriminatory because they fail to recognise the varying degree of 'cost' from different sources. Thus we have the situation where transport fuel (petrol) has a total taxation rate of 300% applied to the base cost, while heating fuel is taxed at 5%. Yet buildings emit twice as much carbon dioxide as the entire transport sector, and the Buildings Research Establishment has shown that air in the average UK home is ten times more polluted than outdoor urban air. Then we have the generally falling levels of pollution from road transport that politicians completely and deliberately fail to recognise. Emissions of car related pollutants are projected by the government's own figures to fall further, to between 60% and 80% of their 1990 levels by 2010. In any decade, where airborne pollutants show a temporary rise, this is almost always due to natural causes such as high sunlight levels (ozone), or trans-boundary pollution (particulates) drawn up from southern Europe on southerly winds, nothing to do with UK transport.

We also see buses — with subsidised fares drawn from general taxation — fuelled by cheap diesel, when their heavily loaded large diesel engines are a source of the two most carcinogenic chemicals known to science. Not to mention the fact that their total particulate emissions over one year of operation are equal on average to that from 128 petrol engined cars. How many buses regularly remove 128 or more car users from the roads for a year? This will be so very close to zero as makes no difference. In addition, trains and aircraft are less energy efficient than cars, according to research from Professor Kemp at Lancaster University, a finding that led Modern Railways magazine to note that, at present, a family going by car is about as environmentally friendly as you can get.
3-nitrobenzanthrone (left) and 1,8-dinitropyrene. 3-nitrobenzanthrone produced the highest carcinogenicity score ever recorded in an AMES test. The previous record holder was 1,8-dinitropyrene. Both are found in diesel bus engine emissions, more so when the engine is under load — as when pulling away from a High Street bus stop. The scientists responsible for studying bus emissions such as these believe they are responsible for many lung cancer cases in cities.

Clearly the degree of taxation levied on the various types of road user is unfair, and the entire transport sector bears an unjustly high price. Successive governments see the transport sector, and motorists in particular, as a cash cow to be milked at every opportunity. That they can get away with this in electoral terms rests on the public being helped to mislead itself regarding the alleged 'cost' to society of car use, and road transport in general. This is spin at its worst. Once the motoring public realises how an unholy alliance between the government and the greens is making them pay through the nose for a third world road network and abysmal travelling experiences, for no valid reason, the wrath from over 30 million driving licence holders will be a powerful catalyst for a sea change in transport policy.

"Road pricing is still a long way off, and may never happen. The motorist will never stand for being priced off the roads, so improvements are essential."
RAC Foundation

Comments from radio listeners in an on-line survey of views on road pricing:
Road Pricing Proposals - Feedback to a Commercial Radio Online Survey July 2004
65% of respondents were OPPOSED to Darling's road pricing proposals. Comments included:
I am disabled and rely on my car every day, if this goes ahead I can't afford it.

That would be like taking away our freedom to go anywhere. We already pay way too much tax in this country, it's out of control.

The cost of transporting goods will increase.

With the price of fuel we should not need to pay any extra.

The plans sound insanely complicated and confusing, and that means more expensive to operate.

People need to be free to travel to work. I fear a huge increase in the numbers who will fall out of work as this method of payment would not make it viable economically to continue working. Public transport does not encompass routes each and every person takes.

My husband is self employed and needs to drive to see his clients - if he has to pay per mile he drives he may as well give up work. We also live in a village with no direct bus route so I wouldn't be able to get to work either - this will cripple people on low incomes and the self employed.

Blair and his posse need to sort out current problems instead of creating more. If this goes ahead the only people who could afford to drive on the roads would be free-loading MPs and the rich.

We pay too much tax already. Petrol is too expensive and road tax is a rip off. It's getting too expensive to live here.