Road Pricing rears its ugly head. Again.

Following my courting of the opprobium of fashionable libertarian opinion by suggesting that there IS a place for black boxes in cars (though not, and I dealt with this in the post, the enforcement of speeding offenses) I will now be less controversial.

The RAC has suggested that some form of road pricing is “inevitable“, but that this should come with a cut in fuel duty and road tax. Fair enough, and I think this Government could pull such a reasonable compromise off. However I WOULD have privacy concerns if records had to be kept about where and when I had been, and that is my principle concern about road pricing. True, most of the public care not a jot about their privacy in such matters, but I do. But there are practical concerns too: The administration of this would require technological deployment on a vast scale nationwide, and a huge bureaucracy to administer it. There would be inevitable errors as someone is billed hundreds for a journey on the other end of the country they couldn’t have taken. There will be a massive increase in car cloning.

The only advantage is that road pricing reflects the usage of the road at different times. And as a believer in markets, I have some sympathy with this. But given people’s commute is already miserable, and councils’ track record for parking offenses, do we really want to give another opportunity for profiteering? The problem is not the principle, it’s the complexity of administration, and there are likely to be arbitary injustices as a result of simplification. It will also inevitably contain exemptions for favoured groups. Teachers HAVE to face the school run. Nurses work odd shifts which may coincide with rush hour. Does anyone think the police will pay?

We already have a tax, paid by everyone except farmers that reflects the distance driven, the speed you drive and the engine you use (and yes, eco-weenies, the carbon-dioxide you produce). This tax is called fuel duty. It may not reflect rush hour, but that is more than made up for by the simplicity of administration: from the point of view of Government: it collects itself. It’s fair. It’s unambigous. We don’t need separate road taxes. Cut everything, except fuel duty.

8 replies
  1. Raedwald
    Raedwald says:

    As a country boy, let me pose a counter-argument.

    Rural communities are dependent on the car to access just about everything; the supermarket, work, schools, health services. Distances are sometimes significant. Congestion is wholly an urban problem – rural traffic places few demands on the road system. Land use for parking is not an economic issue where land values are low and there's lots of room.

    A rise in fuel duty will impact disproportionally on rural communities and advantage urban dwellers.

    However, I agree about road pricing – it's a clumsy and expensive way of achieving 'fairness' and targeting the traffic that causes congestion and places the greatest demands on the road system.

    So why not tax parking in urban areas? A 100% VAT rate on top of parking charges will cost no more to administer than now, and will leave the road transport industry and commerce unaffected. As an ad valorem tax it is avoidable, and urban areas have alternative transport modes. It would apply to residents' permits for on-street parking as well as to council and commercial car parks. Best of all, it really would cut congestion and road use to, from and in the worst areas – as these correlate with the highest car parking charges anyway.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Couldn't agree more with this analysis. Being the UK, this will inevitably lead to a massive bureaucratic overhead, overmonitoring, abuse of data, fraud, and monitoring mistakes.
    The average law-abiding longer distance commuter (for which largely read middle class / white collar / middle tax bracket earner) will bear the brunt of such inefficiencies and hassle.

    Why are these road economics gurus simply not considering that higher fuel prices are already abating congestion, and will increasingly do so? Since the start of the credit crunch I've witnessed – on my 35 mile daily commute to work via the M32 and M4 – that most of school-run mums on the local roads have discovered the kids CAN get to school on foot. There is also the added bonus that students and other owners of polluting clapped-out M reg rust-heaps and the like have already been priced off the road to an extent, from what I can see.

    If we're on the brink of fossil fuels running out, fuel prices will increase, ergo congestion will surely decrease in the long run?

  3. Nigel Sedgwick
    Nigel Sedgwick says:

    Would this "fashionable libertarian opinion" perchance include me? I always thought I was too far on (sometimes even beyond) the classical liberal side of libertarian to be the least bit fashionable. But I suppose we all have our own opinions, and some of them are wrong.

    I'm much more with you on the road pricing issue. Furthermore you have, so well, identified the key and only issue on which road pricing has the slightest possible chance of winning over petrol tax: 'what time' you choose drive.

    The solution? Well try 'what time' the government chooses to build new roads!

    Best regards

  4. Weekend Yachtsman
    Weekend Yachtsman says:

    "I would have privacy concerns if records had to be kept about where and when I had been"

    You think this doesn't happen already? Do you not know that the motorway system is infested with APNR cameras? You think they delete all the data they collect? Dream on…

    Apart from that, I agree with your post. There will inevitably be exemptions for "key workers" (ie, pretty much anyone who works for the state, in any capacity). And it won't replace any other taxes, it will be in addition to them.

    Mr. R – increase car parking charges in town centres even further? Can't support that one, I'm afraid. Aren't we already concerned about the death of the High Street and the impact of out-of-town retailing? Your suggestion would make it much worse.


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