Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fares Fair – not road pricing

If Blair’s new ID card wasn’t bad enough the Government is now considering a road pricing scheme that would enable the police to monitor everyone who uses a car.
A hidden agenda lies behind this proposal that is clearly linked to the identity card and that is to give the police and security forces ultimate surveillance powers.
Alistair Darling, the Transport Minister, has detailed proposals to replace the current road tax and fuel duties with a high-tech system that is allegedly intended to deal with the growing problem of road congestion. But it can only work if every car is fitted with an electronic satellite tracking device to record every trip made and that is precisely what is intended.
Anyone who lives in any of our major cities knows that congestion is a growing problem though not so much in London, where it has always existed apart from a comparatively brief period following the decline of horse power in the early part of the 20th century. Anyone who uses our motorways knows that the volume of traffic has soared over the past two decades despite the construction of new roads and by-passes over the same period. And increased public awareness of the threat to health and the environment has led to more research into eco-friendly forms of transport that London’s congestion charge scheme favours.
The Darling plan addresses none of these points nor does it seek to solve them except through a scheme that would reduce the volume of traffic by simply making it much more expensive to use the car. Though there’s talk of abolishing the existing road fund license and the colossal tax on fuel there is no firm commitment in the plan floated last week. Even if they were abolished the overall anticipated income from road pricing would have to be far greater to deter motorists. That, after-all, is the declared objective of a plan that would make our road system the exclusive preserve of the rich and add more costs to goods transported by road -- virtually everything these days – which would send prices soaring when the extra charges are passed on to the consumer.
The obvious answer is to get more people and goods onto public transport. Unfortunately that service is no longer “public” but in the hands of grasping private owners concerned only to squeeze the last penny out of people who have no alternative but to use their dubious networks. According to the Department of Transport statistics for 2003 bus and coach fares were 34 per cent higher and rail fares 36 per cent higher in real terms than in 1980 when most of these services were still in public or municipal ownership. In practice people are forced to use their cars because the alternatives are much more expensive and increasingly unreliable.
In 1981 the newly elected Greater London Council under the leadership of Ken Livingstone implemented the “Fares Fair” scheme that made the capital the environmental model for Europe. Bus and Underground fares were cut by a third and it was paid for by a modest increase in the rates. Following the example of Paris London was divided into two zones and season tickets replaced by travel cards that covered all public transport in greater London. Within a year car use in London had dropped by ten per cent. London Transport’s revenue went up by £48 million. Tube usage went up by 44 per cent and bus usage by 14 per cent.
Tory councils moved to kill the experiment in the courts and they succeeded in December 1981. The Thatcher government brought in more controls in 1984 to make sure it never happened again.
“Fares Fair” proved that cutting fares reduces traffic. The re-nationalisation of our rail and road transport companies and the introduction of a new fares fair scheme across the country could easily reduce the problems on our roads and be considerably cheaper than the billions earmarked for the Darling scheme.