Thursday, February 22, 2007

Still waiting for my email from Mr Blair

***** !! Caution. Rant Warning. Rant Ahead!! *****

Mind you, he's got almost two million to write, so I suppose it might take him a day or two.

Yes, for lack of anything better to do, I went along to the Number 10 website and added my name to the masses who were petitioning against road pricing being introduced into the UK. Not that it will make the slightest bit of difference. Our transport minister Mr Ladyman has already said that he won't be swayed from the government line, and that line is to screw yet more money out of the already suffering motorist.

OK, you might think then that I'm not a great fan of road pricing, but actually you'd be wrong. A properly run system, introduced as a replacement to the existing taxation structure and used to encourage a change in road-use patterns need not be a bad thing. The devil is, however, in the details.

At present, the consensus seems to be for a system based on satellite navigation linked to some massive central database that knows where you are at any time and charges accordingly. Forget for a moment the massive infringement of liberty that this would be, it would also be the most ambitious and expensive IT project carried out by any organisation anywhere to date. There are 33 million registered motor vehicles in the UK, and each and every one of them would have to be monitored. Monthly bills would have to be calculated and distributed to all 27 million licensed drivers, and systems would have to be in place to pursue defaulters. And yet government of all hues has shown itself, time and time again, completely incapable of running even the most simple of IT projects. When it gets complicated, such as with the NHS database, the Inland Revenue system or the Rural Payments Agency, the whole edifice crumbles. I wouldn't trust a government department with running a village fete mailshot, what chance have they of delivering an integrated nationwide road-pricing system?

Early back-of-envelope calculations suggest implementing such a scheme would cost £62 billion, and eight billion or so a year just to run. The cost per car for the little black box that monitors your every move would be around six hundred pounds. Factor in the usual inability to bring in projects in the same universe as the original estimate, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to see a completed road-pricing system costing the UK taxpayer - that's you and me folks - well over a hundred billion pounds.

The UK motorist currently pays around £60 billion in motoring taxation a year. That's purchase tax on vehicles, licensing, duty on fuel and everything else lumped together. In return for this largesse, we are rewarded with approximately £12 billion in monies spent on building new roads and maintaining the existing network. In theory, any road-pricing scheme should replace all other motorist revenue-raising schemes, but there is no way in hell that government would relinquish the whole £60 billion, neither would it be allowed to zero-rate VAT on fuel and vehicle purchases as that would be in breach of EU agreements. The most likely scenario is that there will be a token gesture of a reduced road-fund licence (currently accounting for a little less than 10% of the average motorist's annual tax-charge) which would then be clawed back over the course of a few years by increases in fuel duty 'in the name of the environment.' At the end of the day, having wasted a hundred billion pounds of our money, the government will still be taking its sixty billion a year, and on top of that fleecing us for even more if we decide - horror of horrors - to actually use our cars.

There is another side to the road pricing debacle that doesn't get much airing, and that is the EU's ill-starred Galileo satellite navigation system. This is an enormously expensive white elephant of the type only unelected governments could possible conceive. Whereas the US GPS system is free to the user, Galileo is designed to require a licence before the signals it broadcasts can be used to pinpoint location. If there were only GPS to compete with, this might not be too much of a problem; the EU could always slap a big tax on GPS-enabled receivers and insist all EU-based navigation systems use Galileo. But there are two other satellite navigation systems currently being launched by the Russians and the Chinese, and neither of them are encrypted either. Meanwhile poor old Galileo stumbles from management by committee balls-up to crisis with the inevitability of a drunk man walking into lampposts.

But the UK government, as a paid up member of the EU and a backer of the Galileo project, is committed to using it for any wide-scale vehicle tracking system; the idea being that such schemes will become pan-European just as soon as we become one great happy federal family.

In many ways I like the idea of road pricing. It's much fairer for people like me, who genuinely have no alternative to a car, than ever-spiralling fuel taxes. The toll for using the roads in Ceredigion would likely be minimal, if not free, reflecting the fact that there are no buses or trains. In the cities, where in theory there is a public transport infrastructure in place, there is something to be said for encouraging people to use it. But even here, the system is not perfect. We have the highest bus and train fares in the whole of Europe, and a rail network creaking under the strain of massive demand. I'm sure that the thousands of people sitting in traffic jams up and down the country every morning and evening don't do it because they particularly enjoy it; they do it because they have to, or because they can't afford the alternative.

Then there's that small privacy issue, that central database that knows at all times where you are, where you've been, how fast you've been going, how long you stayed still. It all sounds a little too Orwellian to me. If road pricing had to be introduced, I'd much rather see a system where only your car knew where it was, and then only in terms of road categories as broadcast by roadside gantries. A sign by the road could tell you how much that section was costing at that time. Such a system would be much simpler and cheaper to implement, and the in-car technology needed could accept pre-payment as well as direct billing. It would be harder to detect cheats, but not impossibly so, and if the punishment for cheating were high enough to be a real deterrent, then losses through fraud would probably be no greater than with an enormously expensive computer system. It won't happen that way, though. For some reason governments love to collect endless amounts of data on people, and this administration is worse than any I've seen in this country.

So what we have at the moment is a situation where motorists already contribute to the state five times what they get out. Our fuel is the second-highest taxed in Europe - around eighty percent of the cost of refuelling is tax. We have a transport infrastructure that is in places bursting at the seams due to lack of long-term investment, and yet instead of acknowledging there is a demand and genuinely seeking the best way to meet that, the government wants to use the blunt instrument of yet more tax to try and force us out of our cars. And when we cry foul, they just shake their heads and mutter 'environment' as if that was the real reason.

I've ranted before about how I think road pricing has got bugger all to do with the environment. It's true that a car stuck in traffic is emitting more pollution per mile than one barrelling on at a good speed, and I don't deny for a moment that finding a way to beat congestion would be of enormous benefit to our way of life. But the more I examine the situation, at least as it is presented in this country, the more I am forced to the conclusion that Messrs Blair, Brown, Ladyman et al are far more interested in raising revenue than in improving the world.

This is a shame on many levels, because by cynically using the green hammer to justify raising taxes, the government waters down the very important message that we need to act now to deal with global warming and its inevitable consequences. Banning all motor cars from our roads today would reduce our total CO2 output by a whopping six percent. Whoopee! Shutting down a couple of coal-fired power stations would have much the same effect. To the extent that it would have any impact on the environment at all, road pricing is the wrong answer to the wrong question.

It is also a shame because road pricing will probably not raise all that much in the way of revenue either, especially when the inevitable cost-overruns and delays are factored in, along with the massive expense of the bureaucracy needed to run it. The congestion charge in London makes money only because people caught not paying it are automatically fined £100 and pursued for the money ruthlessly. The expansion of the zone will actually make the situation worse, taking something like ten years to pay off its set-up costs and delivering a five percent reduction in traffic volume through the city.

It's a shame because when the noise is all over, and we have a near-police state where our every movement is logged by the government then used to prosecute us for speeding, or to check up on our tax returns, or to identify us as possible suspects in police investigations, there will still be congestion, probably worse than it is now, because no-one is actively encouraging better use of the existing road network. It's all stick and no carrot.

If our government really cared about congestion, it would build more roads. If all it wants is to cut carbon emissions from cars, then continuing to raise duty on petrol and diesel, whilst offering vastly better tax breaks for the clean alternatives would seem to be a better bet. Sinking rather more of those £60 billions into wave power generation and off-shore windfarms, fuel cell research and other alternative technologies might be a good idea, too. The Scottish Parliament has this week sunk £4.1 million into a project to build a small wave power generation station off the coast of Orkney. £4.1 million? Go on, spoil yourself.

I'm a terrible cynic at the best of times, and have never been a fan of the Labour Party. After ten years of spin, I find it hard to take whatever they say as anything other than the complete opposite of what they actually mean. This is the wind they sowed and the whirlwind they must reap, I suppose. But of all the things they have done since May 1997, all the mismanagement of the NHS; the death by a thousand meddling 'programmes' of our education system; the slow, cynical destruction of our agricultural industry; it is the steady rise in indirect taxation that has left me seething. If our prime-minister-in-waiting has any great skill, it is in pulling the wool over your eyes as he picks your pocket. Road pricing is just one more in a long line of stealth taxes that are sucking this country dry. I can only hope that the popularity of the petition is a sign that, at last, people are beginning to wise up.

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