February 21, 2007

Road Pricing and Government Debate

Along with one and a half million other people, I received a very polite e-mail from Tony Blair today explaining why my views on road pricing are wrong. Ignoring my actual views on road pricing (broadly against with a sympathy for limited toll introduction e.g. on motorways unless the public transport system is massively overhauled), I find the tone of the response quite annoying. The approach is common across government and also evident in the ID cards issue, which Mr. Blair commented on last week.

Typically, having reassured us that the government is open-minded and welcoming to broad debate, they re-iterate their arguments as simply and clearly as they can. Rather like stereotypical English tourists they speak LOUDLY and SLOWLY because we clearly haven’t understood what they have been – perfectly reasonably – trying to tell us. Having restated for us their rational, the argument ends and we are expected to be won over. I don’t think I am alone in having read government publications, Ministerial interviews and newspaper comments in order to understand the issue before signing the petition. (Incidentally, he may be regretting it now but I love Mr. Blair’s online petitions – it allows one to research a subject before signing rather than being approached on the street in ignorance). I really would rather that the government engaged directly with criticisms and counter arguments and responded to them – had a real debate – rather than assuming that we had an imperfect understanding of their case (not that I have a perfect understanding but… y’know). I can understand why they can’t do this with the public at large but even Parliament fails in this regard; it is so focussed on political point scoring that I can barely detect debate there either (“Would the Minster..?” “Since 1997 we have…” “Yes, but could you answer?” “Given the last Tory administration…” etc ad infinitum).

Mr Blair’s e-mail is actually rather more conciliatory than I’ve allowed for but does come in the face of several weeks of staunch defence from Transport Ministers who have outright rejected the petition (an anonymous Minister called the author a ‘prat’) and said that it will not affect the proposals. They obviously hadn’t received the memo at that point as the message has softened considerably since the PM became personally involved – he doesn’t enjoy aggravating the electorate. Mr. Blair calls this a ‘difficult choice’ (even to a degree writing off the impact of his transport policy) but doesn’t engage with issues such as the inequality of the tax, the expense of some public transport and its variability across regions (Chiltern or Virgin, anyone?), the poor rural services, and the movement of essential shops and services out of communities due to supermarkets/post office closures. He fails to acknowledge that successive governments have not only encouraged but forced extended mobility and failed to provide a public transport system to keep up.

The problem is that “difficult choice” is a New Labour euphemism for “unpopular action”. Some of these are perfectly reasonable and driven by political/social dogma – I may disagree with a government’s opinion but if they have always been clear about their stance on it and their intention to legislate then they have the democratic right to do so (e.g. fox hunting). Often, however, a “difficult decision” is merely one that the government is taking against broad public opinion (Iraq comes to mind). Where the public understand the rational they are usually forgiving but where the decision seems to be punitive, reactionary or designed to paper over failures elsewhere in the system (such as the diabolical public transport system outside of London), as this one seems, then resentment builds. Margaret Thatcher found this with the Poll Tax and I’m sure that the Labour administration will too. Unfortunately, I doubt that issue will be road pricing but the fact that c.1.8m (almost 3% of the population! Yes, I’m sure some of them were called Mickey Mouse too…) felt sufficiently strong to find the website, register and confirm their signature gives the impression that the time isn’t too far off.

Rant over.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Max Hammond

    Actually, an anonymous minister called the person who came up with the idea of having petitions on the no 10 website a prat, not the instigator of the petition.

    We don’t pay enough for the environmental damage we cause with cars, so how can you raise the extra revenue? Fuel duty’s a loser, because it’s extremely unfair. The idea of road pricing, if implemented well, could overcome that argument. Roads are cheap where there’s no public transport, expensive where there’s a good alternative.

    What is your suggestion for persuading people to leave their cars at home?

    21 Feb 2007, 18:52

  2. I got that response. It amused me that it went straight to Junk Mail….

    21 Feb 2007, 21:57

  3. Hmmmm… Blogs says response too long. Therefore…

    PART 1!

    Hi Max – to be honest, it accidentally turned into a rant about road charging; when I began my intention was to rant about the juxstaposition of the government’s operations and its use of the term debate/dialogue (as ever so…). But to respond to your point, I’m not against the principal of road charging, to be honest. For example, I think the French motorway system is excellent and most of the trials in the UK seem pretty workable (with the exception of the Scottish bridges, which appear to be a disaster largely because rather than presenting an alternative to public transport or the M6 or whatever, they do just appear to be a tax on mobility much as the current government suggestions are). The crux of my dislike of the government’s approach (which is pretty clear regardless of assurances that nothing is fixed) is that is a product, in part, of its own failures, which it now seeks to address by penalising the populace and that it will essentially be a punitive tax. My very short solution is a better, integrated transport system; it can be done and is done in many other countries (even those with lower taxes!) but it has been hamstrung in this country by short sighted governments unwilling to follow through on the plans of their predecesors and an overly eager desire to pivatise all of it – buses, trains, planes etc. It would be unfair to blame the government entirely; any administration inheriting a 200 year old, rusting transport infrastructure would struggle. I just can’t get it out of my head that London works, why can’t the rest of the country?
    The first point is that successive governments (since the 50s if we’re being really mean but most noticibly in the 80s and 90s) have failed to invest in a decent public transport system. This wouldn’t be a problem but you can also draw a direct line back to the government also encouraging people to become more and more mobile in order to live their lives e.g. privatisation of services leading to rationalisations (yes, some good… but the post office?!), planning laws promoting out of town/village service stations, a tendancy toward larger, centralised schools etc. To compound this, there is no clear move to address this problem in conjunction with road pricing nor to provide a definite structure to transfer fees raised by this tax to public transport.

    22 Feb 2007, 00:10


    Secondly, despite predictions of home working and the 24 hour society, it is increasingly clear that for the majority of people the 9-5ish job will remain a reality for many years to come due to the necessary evil of offices/services having complimentary business hours in order to get anything done. Indeed, only yesterday there were reports that for the majority of employees, home working is inappropriate. Also, most jobs tend to be located in central areas or locations at transport nexuses. Given these circumstances, having a tax based on a persons ability to travel is essentially a punitive one. Without the public transport system to ferry people around very effectively (as there is in London) then naturally those able to pay will remain in their cars as the roads empty, speeding to jobs whilst the poorer wait for public transport. Conceivably, this means that the better off you are the further you are able to travel in order to get a better job, with a higher salary whilst those less well off will have a much smaller radius in which to look for work thus reinforcing the gap between the well-off and poor. You can also speculate that for those trying to travel into densely populated areas (Birmingham City centre) speed will also become a factor if public transport is pushed to its limits, therefore ‘classes’ of transport could also be exagerated – I could envision express trains beginning to command the same premiums that first class currently does but with time rather than luxury being the USP.
    I do agree that for environmental reasons, cars need to be dealt with, but I’m not sure that fuel duty is any more unfair than road pricing – it also charges you on how far you drive with the added benefit of charging you more for a big or inefficient engine. I think you could happily increase existing road tax without too many complaints, again on a sliding scale dependent on the size of your car. Equally, I think it’s a little unfair to penalise the commuter when the haulage industry and other modes of transport (primarily aircraft) could be reformed with much greater impact far more easily – why do lorries drive the length of the country when there are redundant train lines available to carry goods with using far smaller carbon footprint with local lorries loading and unloading?
    I would be unfair not to say that in the email, Mr Blair does address the civil liberty issue very effectively; I just which he was as flexible regarding ID cards! :-)

    Sorry this has been a bit rambling – late at night, on pain killers and and can’t sleep – but just to return to my original point; I’m not totally against road charging, more the way the issue has been handled. I feel that I have genuine concerns and grievences but, with the exception of the civil liberties issue, non of them have been propoerly address by the government as part of this debate. I have heard all of them put to ministers but the response is always the same government rational and spin rather than a serious counter point. The model can be seen time and time again when the PM has a “difficult decision” and I’m just wearing thin of seeing the word debate used as an excuse for poor justification or avoiding “difficult answers”.

    I really need to stop taking these things so seriously and learn to surf.

    22 Feb 2007, 00:11

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