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

In the landscape of British politics, some topics seem off limits to open discussion. Brexit is an example. Road pricing is another strange taboo.

Despite growing recognition across political lines of the need for road charging to tackle congestion and tax losses following widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), politicians are petrified to discuss – let alone support – it.

Road pricing is increasingly seen as an inevitable policy in light of a changing 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 change. Fuel charges generate around £28 billion annually, but the expected increase in the use of electric cars is expected to fall. The fuel tax itself is a form of paid driving. Road pricing is a fairer and more logical alternative.

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

Motoring is heavily subsidized – the external costs outweigh any revenue from fuel taxes. However, this does not stop the mistake that motorists are cash cows for the treasury. Politicians acutely aware of this sentiment (and seemingly unable to account for the facts) are wary of advocating policies that might 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 significant political risks, as it is often portrayed by the right-wing press as a “war on motorists”. Given the cultural significance of driving in the UK, policies perceived to restrict or penalize motorists are particularly contentious.

Policy aside, the implementation of a road pricing system will present significant logistical, technical and administrative challenges.

According to a fascinating passage in this week, transport journalist Carlton Reid reports how Michael Dnes, a senior official at the Department for Transport, has been forced to delete a tweet he wrote on July 7 describing how the new UK government could painlessly introduce road charges. Dnes had suggested that the nascent electric car 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 addressing the issue of tolling, 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 fair transport future.

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