Road pricing yet to add up: better ways to ration fuel

It seems inevitable that road pricing is coming to Manchester along with the kind of public transport regulation London has always enjoyed. There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to combat pollution – even if some pollution has been significantly reduced in the region – but the apparent consensus that the key to reducing harmful emissions is to make burning fuel more expensive needs to be challenged.

Those who are already socially disadvantaged will be the first to be priced off the road. But this need not be inevitable. We could introduce a form of a rationing. Vehicle tax payers could receive fuel vouchers to accompany any purchase. The total amount of fuel sold in the UK could then be capped and then reduced over time. People could even be allowed to sell their vouchers on, just like carbon traders.

Food prices weren’t allowed to rise out of reach of the poor during wartime. But I guess that today rationing sounds mad.

Even so, road pricing is far from being a cure for emissions. Many are calling for this new tax to be offset by a reduction in fuel duty. This is madness. A road user’s emissions are directly proportionate to the amount of fuel they use, as is fuel duty. So fuel duty is levied in direct proportion to the pollution a road user creates. Anything else is an approximation. Furthermore, if people take circuitous routes to avoid expensive roads their fuel use will rise. For these reasons any new tax should be made in addition to fuel duty.

Road pricing does have the advantage of being targeted at congestion hotspots, but London-style congestion charges can do this as effectively.

The civil liberty arguments against road pricing are also strong. The Information Commissioner’s Office is worried about function creep with regard to idenity cards. A system that tracks individuals’ journeys must carry the same risks. And not so long ago the same watchdog revealed how corruptible databases containing private information can be. It costs just £40 to bribe a telephone engineer to match an address to a number: information an abusive husband used to find the address of a battered wives’ refuge. A record of someone’s travel habits could be useful to lots of dodgy characters. The best protection for our liberties and our privacy is not to capture this information in the first place.

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