Will the Lib Dems stick up for their own policy?

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2007

I’ve been biding my time on the vexed issue of road pricing. Not because I’m in two minds about it: road pricing is absolutely essential. As I wrote here, in June 2005, it “offers a new, and fairer, income stream to pay for public transport improvements; and offers government an highly elastic fiscal mechanism to regulate road capacity according to the local demand for it.”

No, this post has been in the pending tray because I wanted to see how long it would be before the Lib Dems remembered that our party supports road pricing (it was adopted by conference in Bournemouth in 2004). The answer was – almost a month.

I think it was the Telegraph which first picked up on the petition which propelled road pricing into the news: Half a million tell Downing St: Scrap road pricing plans (27th January).

Eventually, on 12th February, our Shadow Transport Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, issued a press release. Instead of setting out the Lib Dem view, he noted, “This response demonstrates the need for the Government to be open and honest with people about their plans for road pricing.” I think the word I’m looking for is pusillanimous.

To be fair, this statement was followed up yesterday, a mere 26 days after the story first broke, by a further, and slightly less equivocal, press release: “Tony Blair’s email demonstrates a total lack of leadership. To convince the public of the case for road user pricing, he must give a guarantee that it will be a different tax, not an extra tax.”

Now this is an important point. Much of the protest from those opposed to road pricing has been generated by the view that this is yet another New Labour stealth tax. Such public scepticism is scarcely surprising given this Government’s record in fleecing the taxpayer on the sly. Lib Dem policy is to support a revenue-neutral switch from fuel duty – which we would abolish – to road pricing, with motorists paying to use road space according to when and where they are driving.

The policy was summed up pretty well by Tom Brake (then our Shadow Transport Secretary) in his 2005 speech to the party conference:

Road pricing is a fundamentally liberal policy. There is a value in ensuring freedom from congestion and pollution. There is a value in having liveable neighbourhoods and cities. …

Road User Pricing offers freedom, fairness and trust.

FREEDOM: from pollution, congestion and the effects of climate change.

FAIRNESS: by promoting a ‘fair tax’ instead of a ‘fuel tax’. Why is it that rural dwellers, where there is no public transport alternative, have to pay a lot more for fuel than in urban centres where this alternative actually exists. Road user pricing would reduce their fuel costs.

Research shows that under our proposal whilst congestion would halve, four out of five journeys would actually be cheaper.

And TRUST: By scrapping fuel duty you would decouple the cost of fuel from the tax that has to be paid. This would bring far greater transparency over what people pay to drive their cars.

He was also careful to dispel the civil liberties qualms that party members (understandably) harbour:

Let me lay to rest at the outset the concerns about a so-called ‘spy in the sky’. Passive technology means that civil liberties would not be compromised by road user pricing in any shape or form. The car would communicate with the satellite, but does not tell the satellite where it is. You are not being tracked.

Road pricing is a policy in which the Lib Dems have been ahead of the game, with Labour playing reluctant catch-up. It is a policy which utilises the market system to make better, more efficient use of resources, and which will improve the environment. A liberal, Liberal policy.

Which makes it all the more agonising that the party has ducked and covered for the past month, allowing the Government to take the flak for making a complete hash of putting forward a perfectly sensible policy. The Lib Dems can hardly criticise the Prime Minister of lacking leadership on this issue when we have shown ourselves to have absolutely no fire in our own bellies. This was a real opportunity missed.

PS: though the Lib Dem response to the road pricing controversy has been disappointing, we do at least have the right policy. The Tories’ backing of the anti-road pricing petition simply confirms something I have long suspected: they believe in the workings of the market only if they think it will profit them personally. And, of course, it shows – yet again – that their talk of wanting to improve the environment was never anything more than hot air.