Push towards pay-as-you-go roads
BBC | May 22, 2007
The government is pushing ahead with plans to introduce road pricing schemes in England and Wales despite a huge public campaign against them.
It has published a draft Bill updating the rules for local authorities who want to set up charging trials.
It insists there are no plans yet for a national scheme but critics say it is not being open about its intentions.
A petition against road pricing on the Downing Street website received nearly two million online signatories.
Widespread road pricing is at least 10 years away technically - but 10 local authorities have expressed an interest in developing charging systems in their areas.
The draft Local Transport Bill will ensure any local schemes are consistent with each other and interoperable.
But a Transport department spokesman said this did not mean the government was pressing ahead with a national pay-as-you-drive scheme.
"No decision has been made on a national scheme. We have got to see the results of the pilot schemes," he said.
He said there would be a three month consultation period for those in favour and against road pricing to have their say before a final Bill is drawn up.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his February reply to the Downing Street website petition, also insisted no decision had been made on national road pricing.
But he said congestion could not be allowed to grow unchecked and any scheme would not be used as a "stealth tax".
Conservative Transport Spokesman Chris Grayling said: "If the rumours about the Bill are right, it is clear that Gordon Brown has his eye on the revenue a national scheme would bring in.
"This Bill, from Douglas Alexander, one of his key lieutenants, shows Brown's determination to introduce national road pricing is just as strong as Tony Blair's was."
Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Alistair Carmichael accused the government of not being open about its plans for a nationwide scheme.
"The government must be open and honest with people about its intentions to push forward with road pricing.
"They must commit to a system which does not mean motorists as a whole paying more, but just paying differently.
"If the public feel that road user pricing is just another cash cow for the Treasury, then it will meet stiff resistance and a real opportunity to reduce congestion will be missed."
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) called on the government should hold a referendum in areas where it was being planned.
"Without it road charging is completely illegitimate, as it would be for a national scheme without a public vote on the issue," said Steve Collie, FSB Transport Chairman.
"Instead of creating more tolls and more laws the government should be enforcing current rules and spending more on the transport network," he added.
The main thrust of the draft Local Transport Bill concerns bus services, with local authorities given the opportunity to insist private operators run certain routes.
In return, the local councils will have to provide the appropriate bus lanes.
In London, where bus services are privatised but are still regulated, there has been a growing increase in passenger numbers in recent years.
But outside the capital, where services have been privatised and deregulated since 1986, there has been a fall in bus patronage.
The draft Bill will fall short of proposing re-regulation for non-London services but it will give local councils - especially the big metropolitan authorities - more say in the running of buses.
In February, 74% of the 1,006 people questioned for a BBC-commissioned survey said they were opposed to charging motorists by the mile.
But 55% of those spoken to said they would change their minds and support such a scheme if the money raised was used to improve public transport.
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