Azara Blog: UK transport secretary says nothing to justify road pricing

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Date published: 2007/02/12

The BBC says:

The transport secretary has pledged to listen to opponents of the introduction of UK road charging.

Douglas Alexander said he will hear the concerns of more than a million people who signed a petition opposing pay-as-you-drive road charges.

The government has insisted that doing nothing would lead to a 25% increase in congestion in less than a decade.

But Mr Alexander said it was important to have a proper debate on the subject and consider a range of views.
When asked if he would take into account the views of those who signed the petition, Mr Alexander told the BBC that the government would "listen to people".

It was important to "deliberate, discuss" and then take a decision, he said.

"Ultimately, it will be a matter for parliament to make decisions but it is important that people have the chance to have their say and no doubt people will offer a range of opinions during that debate."

He added that people needed to recognise that the UK did not have a choice "but to deal with congestion".

"Our roads are literally filling up," he said.

The prime minister's official spokesman said it was a "lively debate" but that "debate in itself does not produce policy".

But Labour MP John Spellar told the BBC's Today programme that the government was too busy looking at the "big idea" to see the "small boring details" that would provide the real solutions to congestion.

He said flexible working hours, staggered school opening, improved traffic signals and the use of the hard shoulder on motorways would have a significant impact on congestion.

"The big idea doesn't have public acceptance," he said.

This morning on Today, the alleged flagship programme on Radio 4, they conduced a surreal interview with Douglas Alexander. It was very similar in flavour to the old Monty Python sketch where you can pay to have an argument but the whole argument is about whether or not you have had an argument. Alexander keeps calling for a debate but there was no debate on Today, just posturing about a debate. And similarly, on the BBC website "Have Your Say" section, the question was whether there should be a debate about road pricing, not about what were the pluses and minuses of road pricing.

John Spellar was the only person on the Today programme who said anything sensible, and that was in spite of, not because of the interviewer. In Cambridge you can always tell when it is half-term in schools, because the morning rush hour suddenly becomes very quiet. Allowing parents to put their kids in pretty much any school they want, and the hysterical media coverage about how vulnerable kids allegedly are to murderers, rapists, child molesters and car drivers, has meant that more and more kids are driven to school.

The reason the BBC is having trouble with this story is that most of the people who work for the BBC hate cars (except those that they themselves drive of course). Indeed, most of the ruling elite of Britain (most of the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, most transport planners, much of the major media including the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4 News, as well as the BBC) hate cars (except those that they themselves drive of course). Given this background, it is hardly surprising that there has been no debate about road pricing. The philosophy of these people is that car drivers (at least other, especially poorer, car drivers) should be screwed, and whatever policy does that is fine by them, however little or much it makes sense. And transport planners have a direct financial interest in seeing road pricing going ahead (it means they have a lucrative job for life, implementing the scheme), so the government receives no independent advice on the subject.

There is one good reason for road pricing. Roads are an economic resource, and (in theory) putting a price on it means that it will be most efficiently used. Unfortunately for the car-hating pro-road-pricing zealots, there are many negative points about road pricing. For one thing it is extremely expensive to implement. Unless by some miracle the road pricing so improves congestion as to more than make up for this cost, the net "benefit" to UK Plc will be negative. (Of course transport planners claim this benefit is higher than the cost, but because of their vested interest one should take their claimed benefits and halve the figure, and take their alleged costs and double the figure.)

Further, road pricing means that society is saying that rich people have more right to be independently mobile than poor people. This seriously negative social consequence is never costed by the economists who are happy to promote the latest attempt to put a price on everything.

Further, if we are supposedly pricing roads to promote their efficient use, then roads in rural areas that are hardly ever used should also be priced, because their cost (in particular their maintenance) is not fully paid for by the people who use them.

Further, if congestion is the real enemy, then everything that leads to congestion should pay a tax, including buses (which are much worse than cars since they keep starting and stopping and obstructing the rest of the traffic), bicycles (since they get in the way of everybody) and indeed even pedestrians (since by using pedestrian lights and zebra crossings they cause other traffic to flow less optimally).

Further, one of the big problems with road pricing is that the government will have every incentive to make the roads worse. The worse they are, the higher the tax they can collect. Indeed, in Cambridge the local council has already deliberately decreased road capacity (out of car hatred rather than financial benefit) and the consequences have been massively increased congestion. (Of course they blame drivers rather than themselves, as the ruling elite always do.) (And they have made other stupid decisions which have not helped, such as dumping more and more retail in a very congested area.)

Further, with road pricing as it will (soon enough) be implemented, the government will be able to permanently track the movement of every vehicle in the UK. The government might be silly enough to trust itself with this data, but no sensible citizen would trust any government on this score (not only because the government is incompetent and will let the data be stolen by unscrupulous people, but also because the government itself is unscrupulous).

Unbelievably, when Alexander says that "something must be done", nobody in the media has bothered to suggest that perhaps more road capacity should be introduced. It has become a staple of the so-called environmentalist lobby that there is no point in building more roads because they will just be filled. Well, if you provide 1950s capacity for the UK road network (e.g. the A14 near Cambridge) then it is not too surprising that increasing the capacity to 1980s levels in 2015 might have this effect. And of course when the UK hits the situation that everybody is in a car getting to work (and we are not that far off that today) then adding more road capacity will not lead to increased road usage. And it is amazing how dreadful it is deemed to be that giving the citizens what they want, and then them using it, is considered to be a sign of bad governance.

The UK ruling elite is fundamentally incapable of considering road pricing from anything other than a prejudiced point of view. So there will be no real debate on the issue, just hollow platitudes about a debate.

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