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Road Pricing

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2006

The initial work conducted by my Department indicates that a well-designed road pricing scheme could offer real potential to cut congestion. Last November my Department awarded pump-priming money to seven areas to develop innovative ways to tackle congestion. My officials and I continue to discuss with both those and other authorities what role road pricing could play in tackling congestion.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for political parties to advocate green policies in this place but then, when it comes to making hard local decisions that need leadership, to run away, as they have in Fife, Lothian and London?

I have consistently made clear my hope that we can sustain a national consensus on road pricing, but that consensus is more challenging when some parties choose to support national proposals in principle, but then actively work to make sure that congestion charging is not implemented on the ground, as happened in Edinburgh.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many people are coming to the view that to tackle congestion we need not only road pricing pilot schemes but more local control over buses. What discussions has his Department had with Bristol city council on that matter, and if there have been no such discussions recently, is he prepared to meet council representatives?

Conversations continue with the Greater Bristol authorities, which are among the authorities I mentioned that have secured pump-priming money to investigate ways to tackle congestion. I have always made it clear that I regard road pricing as one element of the strategy; another element—a key element—is an improvement in the quality of public transport. Given the significant number of public transport journeys that are made by bus, I charged myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who is responsible for buses, over the summer to take a long, hard look at bus provision not only in London but across the country. I hope to be able to make proposals in due course.

Passenger transport authorities have been advised to include road pricing schemes that make use of existing technology in any bid to the transport innovation fund. Given that the schemes are supposed to be pilot schemes in preparation for a national scheme, is it not possible that advancing technology will negate their usefulness as a way of assessing the viability of a national scheme?

I am not sure that I accept the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have allocated £10 million from the Department for Transport to research into precisely those technological issues. I spoke at the intelligent transport systems congress that took place here in London only last week, and between the delegates from around the world there was strong discussion of the potential for finding technological solutions to road pricing. The logic of conducting the pilots is to ensure not only that the technologies work on the ground, but that we have experience in communities across Britain before we move towards a national scheme, if that is what we decide to do.

Hundreds of Irish haulage firms use the M4-A40 as one of their main transit routes into the European Union. While the Government continue to dither, what can local authorities along those trans-European networks do now to recoup some of the costs incurred from foreign hauliers that currently do not contribute a penny?

We continue to discuss that challenge with the road haulage industry. Work on the foreign lorry road user charge is now being developed as part of the work on a national system of road pricing. However, I recognise that there are continuing challenges, in particular in relation to cabotage, which is why we continue to discuss such matters with the industry.

It has been estimated that this year congestion will cost the west midlands approximately £2.2 billion. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend comment on the outcome of his discussions with the west midlands authorities and his early assessment of the transport innovation fund bid?

Tempting though it is to offer a running commentary on each of the transport innovation fund bids that we have received, I shall resist. Suffice it to say that I met the west midlands authorities in July and heard directly from them about the work that they are doing. Since then we have received the west midlands congestion management study, which is with my Department for consideration.

We are interested in the merits of dynamic and variable road pricing to reduce congestion, but we do not quite understand why, following the collapse of the lorry road user charge scheme, the Government are setting up a number of unco-ordinated tag and beacon congestion schemes. Is it the Secretary of State’s intention to set up a national road pricing scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong to say that there are to be a number of unco-ordinated projects across the country. The rationale behind the pilots is to make sure that we have both the experience on the ground from the individual pilots, and scaleable propositions in respect of the technology, which could inform discussions on the national scheme. I struggle with the Opposition’s position. In principle they say that they are interested in the scheme. They then criticise it as potentially involving a massive use of public money for a Government computing system—yet they appear to resist the pilot system, which seems the perfect answer to taking forward public support for the scheme and learning the technology lessons that need to be learned.

But what would be the point of introducing road pricing in a locality unless the local authority in the area concerned had some power to introduce alternative public service provision? Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to the House that no road pricing system will be brought in unless the local authority concerned has new powers to regulate bus services in its area?

In relation to the bids for the transport innovation fund, we have been clear that the kind of demand management measures, including road pricing, that local authorities are considering would be complementary to exactly the kind of improvement in public transport that my hon. Friend suggests. I have made it clear in recent weeks that I am concerned that the present free-for-all is not serving the public well in relation to bus services, and we will be publishing proposals on that in due course.

Will the Secretary of State give a pledge that when he recommends a scheme for national road pricing, it will not put an additional tax burden on British motorists and British road users, but will increase the burden on those who use the roads at popular times and will include taxing foreign use of our roads?

At the previous Transport Question Time, I made it clear that the anticipated time scale, if a national road pricing scheme were to be developed, would be the middle of the next decade. The right hon. Gentleman cannot reasonably expect me to write the Budget for 2015 at the Dispatch Box today, but I will assure him that we recognise that if we were to move to a system of national road pricing, that could have an effect on systems of road transport taxation.