Are road tolls highway robbery?

Julian Gavaghan
Britain's roads are clogged but we still don't like tolls

You may think highway robbery was a thing of the past.

But, if Ukip, the AA, Taxpayers’ Alliance and a host of other groups are to be believed, this crime is now thriving in the form of road tolls.

And few things rile the British public more than these charges, which come on top of already soaring driving costs.

The latest AA polls show that 70 per cent of Britons – more than voted for both the Conservative and Labour parties at the last general election - are opposed to road pricing.

And a staggering 1.8million people bothered to sign a petition against such schemes back in 2007.

So – with the Government reportedly hoping to build a new M4 toll motorway  - why is road pricing such a tricky sell in Britain?

After all, the vast majority of motorways in France are toll roads - and virulent protest in that country is as much part of the national character as soft cheese and sex.

One reason why tolls are unpopular among Britain’s 35million drivers is because they are levied on top of almost £48billion worth of other motoring taxes.

These include £5.4billion from the annual vehicle excise duty – signified by the 'tax disc' all road-using cars must bear – and include £215 from this writer’s own not-exactly-gas-guzzling 1.6-litre family car.

Drivers also pay £31.7billion in VAT and extra duties levied on fuel, which in itself is becoming more expensive.

Yet of these vast sums raised by the Treasury only £9.8billion a year gets spent on our road network.

All motorist groups – whether they support or oppose tolls – agree that more of this revenue should be devoted to our highways.

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Furthermore, there is almost unanimous agreement among these bodies that levying tolls on top of these taxes is wrong.

"The majority of road tax revenue subsidises other forms of public spending and we feel this shouldn’t be the case," says a spokesman for the AA.

"Additional tolls, or any form of road pricing, undermines consumer spending and mobility and could further damage our fragile economy."

The RAC Foundation is unique among motorist groups in supporting pay-as-you-go road pricing while demanding an end to “piecemeal” tolls and cuts to road taxing.

Stephen Glaistor, Professor of Transport and Infrastructure at Imperial College London, argues: "Why should someone using the Dartford Crossing or Severn Bridge be charged an additional fee on top of all the other money they already contribute to the Exchequer?"

Even the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which is normally opposed to public spending, takes a dim view of toll roads, despite the reduced cost to the Treasury.

"The Government should be looking at ways to cut the burden already placed on motorists instead of looking for more ways to make them pay," it insists.

Strangest of all, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) – usually only known for taking a stance on EU-related issues – is staunchly against road pricing.

The party denies its 'Scrap the Tolls' campaign is just a cynical ploy to attract those voters less bothered about its main objective of Britain exiting the European Union.

"We are not just a single issue party. We have a range of policies and we want drivers to have access to roads they have already paid to use," a spokeswoman insisted.

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Another reason why opposition to tolls is so vigorous is that many of the existing road pricing projects have been unusually controversial.

For example, you might as well poke a lion as mention to an habitual M25 motorist the £2 toll for the Dartford Crossing.

Under original plans, levies there were meant to cease nine years ago after the Thames bridge and tunnel had been paid for. Instead charges were increased.

And dinner parties in the West Midlands could quickly sour with a single mention of the £5.50-a-go Birmingham-bypassing M6 Toll Road.

Since it was opened in 2004, there has seen a 26 per cent decline in traffic compared to its peak of 48,214 vehicles today.

The Road Haulage Association, whose lorry and van-driving members are particularly affected by road charges, predicts an M4 toll road in South Wales would also fail.

But not all current road-pricing schemes have been so unpopular.

The central London congestion charge, which accounts for half of Britain’s toll revenue - raising £300million a year with its £10-a-day levy – is broadly viewed to have been successful in reducing gridlock in an eight square mile area of the capital.

Businessmen, such as Elliot Jacobs, managing director of office supplies firm UOE, say it has boosted trade by helping firms deliver more easily.

However, despite winning over many doubters in London, proposals for congestion charges in Manchester and Edinburgh were dismissed at recent referendums.

Yet further road pricing initiatives are probably inevitable.

In March last year, Prime Minister David Cameron called for more 'private investment', which experts say is a codeword for toll roads.

After that, a joint Treasury and Department for Transport began conducting a 'feasibility' study, although publication has been repeatedly delayed.

When asked by Yahoo! News, the DfT remained tight-lipped about road pricing plans - only saying it was 'looking at toll schemes to increase capacity'.

Politicians are even more loath to mention pay-by-the-mile road pricing, although there are some merits – especially if other motoring taxes are axed or scrapped.

Professor Glaistor boils things down to a discrepancy between our expectations and what is realistic. "In just about every other area of our lives we are used to paying charges that vary by the level of consumption and time of use, be it gas, electricity, telecoms or even travel by plane and train," he says.

"So why not consider it for roads?

"We would also want to see a set amount of money raised be ring-fenced for spending on roads and also the creation of a watchdog to make sure charges are regulated.

"Ultimately the issue is one of trust. Ministers need to persuade the nation’s drivers that road pricing can be in everyone’s interest not just the Chancellor’s."

And that is probably the biggest sticking point of all. Nobody trusts our politicians.