The campaign against road pricing, driven by almost daily mentions in most of the mainstream press, has ticked up to 1.71 million signatures. I now face a dilemma. I want to know what happens next – what do they say on the e-mail response, how do they send it and, most importantly, whether my spam filter bins it – but I’d have to sign up to the petition. And I’m probably for road pricing, not against it. “Probably” because I just don’t know.
The folks at Number 10 have gone out of their way to publicise their response to the anti-ID cards petition. Twenty seven thousand people signed that one. The site now has, pluckily perhaps, a 9 page slide deck on ID cards (apparently delivered by the PM himself although I’m not sure to who). It all goes quite well until the end when there’s a glib “benefits will outweigh the costs”. I’m sure people will want more than that. There are also links to the Identity and Passport Service’s FAQ and Myths page (those could do with more work) and a webchat with the new head of the IPS, James Hall. There are some good thoughts there. For instance, on costs, Mr. Hall says “You can see that our current view is that the ID Card has an incremental cost of less than £30 – £3 per year over the ten year life of the passport and ID card” – who knew that we were going to be allowed to pay by instalments? It’s very good to see a more open debate about pros and cons and, better still, candid recognition that there’s still much work to be done before it’s all clear.
So I may be pro, but I’m not, however, pro in the sense that the petition writer says on the No 10 site (i.e. I’m not for sinister and wrong things generally or even specifically in this case):
“The idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel – the more tax you pay.
It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair – forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion.”
Fuel tax is a crude way of road pricing. It doesn’t matter what time you travel or which roads you travel on, it doesn’t help if a haulage firm buys its fuel abroad and then travels untaxed on UK roads. As I understand it, road pricing is aimed at (a) reducing travel by making public transport look better value or through encouraging more home working (even cheaper), (b) forcing people to travel at off-peak times (as is already routine with train and tube travel, with discounts available for travelling in certain hours) and (c). Beyond all that, fewer cars on the road should have a financial consequence on GDP by making travel times quicker for most people (assuming that their is consequent investment in public transport) and should have environmental benefits (which, for many, will be the winning argument) by taking cars off the road.
The more you travel, the more tax you pay may still be true; it may also make for high monthly costs. As for it making it unfair on families who live apart, that’s partly what public transport is for and partly about what time of the day you travel. But the truth is, we just don’t yet know.
We haven’t yet seen the counter-proposal to these concerns. Will fuel duty remain the same? Will hybrid cars be charged at the same rate?
Will bigger cars be charged more (aligning with Ken Livingstone’s plan to charge £25 for big cars in the congestion zone)? Will discounts be availble for some road users, e.g. the elderly? How will commercial vehicles be dealt with?
Will there be options to reduce the charge if you’re car sharing? Will car sharing lanes be introduced to futher speed travel?
Will the cost be predictable before I set out, i.e. can I figure out (quickly) that if I wait 30 mins before I leave for a trip to Norwich, it will be £10 cheaper?
Will it conflict with my pay as you drive insurance scheme (which, as far as I can tell, pushes me towards not driving at night because it’s more dangerous, yet the road pricing angle would be to charge less for that period)
And, finally, just as in ID cards, how much will it cost to set up, what are the delivery risks and how much of the cost do I, as a tax payer or motorist, have to shoulder – both for overall set up and for ongoing costs?
Without a balanced case, it hardly seems the right time to have a petition – and having the debate after 1.7 million people have signed a petition and formed a view is also a little slow. As always in government, timing is everything. So now, 1.7 million emails have to be sent out explaining the story so far and reacting to a problem that may perhaps not be such a problem. But right now, we just don’t know.
Other objections raised, some in comments here, have related to the idea of being tracked all the time by government, or being tested relentlessly for speeding and other such Big Brother thoughts. Those all seem unlikely today. But 10 years from now who knows?
The information may be out there. The DfT website has pages and pages of stuff on road pricing, but there is no succinct summary. The pages are written by government for government, not for the citizen. I did look for something as a useful counter-argument, but couldn’t find it.
I’d like to see blogs attached to the petition pages where serious policy-related petitions are accompanied by a pro and con debate. Government has shown it wants to enter the debate – viz James Hall’s online chat – and so how about it happens in real time, day to day. The top 4 or 5 petitions are given their own blogs where the arguments are set forth by a nominated owner of the petition (presumably whoever raises it first) and a respondee from government who provides the counter argument (assuming that all petitions are anti-government policy; some will, inevitably, be pro-policy and so the opposite would apply). There’d have to be a bit of control to ensure that whoever was leading the petition didn’t hand their access over to everyone or anyone (perhaps that brings me neatly back to ID cards?).