If you thought Brexit was taboo in British politics, wait until you hear about road pricing

July 10, 2024

road pricing

In British politics, some topics are seemingly off limits for open discussion. Brexit is one example. Road pricing is another peculiar taboo.

Despite an increasing acknowledgment across political lines of the need for road pricing to address congestion, and tax-loss following widespread electric vehicle (EV) adoption, politicians are petrified to discuss - let alone endorse it - in public.

Road pricing is increasingly seen as an unavoidable policy in light of an evolving transport landscape. After all, it promises to help reduce fuel duty, ensure drivers pay their share, help fund public transport and tackle congestion.


The advent and growing popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) represents a fundamental shift. Fuel duty generates around £28 billion annually but the projected increase in EV adoption, this revenue is expected to plummet. Fuel duty itself is a form of pay-as-you-go driving. Road pricing is fairer and more logical alternative.

However, attempts to propose road pricing schemes have been met with intense opposition from the public and media. The public outcry against the proposed nationwide road pricing scheme in 2007, which gathered over 1.8 million signatures against it, is a prime example.

Motoring is heavily subsidised - the external costs outweigh any revenue from fuel duty.

Cars are a major household expense, yet there is limited comprehension of their private (internal) and social (external) cost per km, year, or lifetime of use.  So says 'The lifetime cost of driving a car' by Stefan Gossling, Jessica Kees and Todd Litman (Linnaeus University and Lund University in Sweden), new research which puts the sum at about £500,000 - an eye watering sum of which society pays 41%.

However, this doesn't stop the fallacy that motorists are cash cows for the exchequer. Politicians, acutely aware of this sentiment (and seemingly incapable of setting out the facts) are cautious about advocating for policies that could be perceived as punitive or regressive.

The political landscape in the UK is heavily influenced by populist pressures and the need for politicians to maintain public approval. Advocacy for road pricing carries substantial political risks, as it is often portrayed by right-leaning press as a 'war on motorists'. Given the cultural significance of driving in the UK, policies perceived as restricting or penalising motorists are particularly contentious.

Politics aside, implementing a road pricing scheme will involve significant logistical, technological, and administrative challenges.

According to a fascinating piece in Forbes.com this week, transport journalist Carlton Reid reports how Michael Dnes, a senior official in the Department for Transport, has been forced to delete a tweet he wrote on July 7 describing how the new U.K. government could painlessly introduce road pricing. Dnes had suggested that the nascent EV market provides a perfect test bed for incremental implementation because electric cars are already equipped with the necessary technology.

In conclusion, while politicians may be apprehensive about broaching the topic of road pricing, the economic, environmental, and infrastructural imperatives for such a policy are compelling. By addressing these issues proactively, the UK can move towards a more sustainable and equitable transport future.


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