Road pricing: timely or toxic?

Describing a transport policy as “a potential poll tax on wheels” - after MP Keith Speed’s famous description of rail privatisation - usually adds to jitters about its unpopularity and political jeopardy.

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  • Ben Marshall Public Affairs
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The phrase is already being used in media reports that the Chancellor is weighing up plans for a new, national scheme with motorists paying for road use. But is it unpopular? What do the public think? And can opinion be changed?

The simple answer is ‘it depends’. There are numerous different ways of pricing road use and, as always, the devil is in the policy’s detail, its timing and presentation. Road pricing encompasses congestion charges, emissions-related fees, pay-as-you-go-schemes, and much else besides. ‘What’ and ‘how’ matters, but so does ‘why’.

Recent coverage of the Chancellor’s interest in road pricing has focused on a new scheme’s revenue-raising potential, much-needed given a multi-billion ‘tax hole’ caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and the future move to electric vehicles. But while this might look good on paper, the National Infrastructure Assessment warned of “a disconnect between theoretically perfect road pricing systems suggested by policymakers and the perceived fairness and practicality of those systems by the public.”

Does that disconnect exist? Ipsos recently found six in ten Britons supporting the introduction of schemes involving charging motorists a fee for driving in and around towns and city centres if they are designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve the local environment e.g. by reducing emissions, or to raise revenue to invest in transport. This has not always been the case; a survey we did in 2007 using the exact same question found higher levels of opposition than support. 

Levels of support in 2020 are far from rigid. They fall to 39% if it is suggested that the revenues collected are used to benefit the road user in the form of lower road tax. Conversely, while a fifth, 21%, oppose schemes in principle, this drops to 15% if charges are higher for more polluting vehicles and just 14% if schemes are used to improve air quality.

The environmental case is important because recent studies have shown that while air quality improved dramatically in the first half of the year as the country went into lockdown, pollution now meets or exceeds pre-COVID-19 levels in 80% of cities and large towns. Exposure to toxic air exacerbates underlying health conditions and heightens risks from COVID. Last week, an inquest listed air pollution as a factor in Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death.

Advocates of road pricing ought to benefit from this more fertile ground. On the other hand, millions of people are even more dependent on their cars at a time when patronage of public transport is less attractive, households’ budgets are set to be squeezed more tightly, and towns and cities will be ever-more desperate to be seen as “open for business”. 

Road pricing might be inevitable, but if it is to avoid becoming a “poll tax on wheels”, it needs to make sense to the public emotionally as well as rationally. That means solving more than a Treasury problem; it means delivering tangible social benefits as well as fiscal ones.

The author(s)

  • Ben Marshall Public Affairs

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