Road User Charging — some initial questions and answers
The idea of road user charging is nothing new. The first toll roads were built in the eighteenth century. These too were unpopular, and eventually led to the Rebecca Riots in 1839. We believe the current plan for Satellite Road User Charging will be even more unpopular even ignoring the civil liberties implications of having your car tracked every minute, every mile. People need to travel for work, to commute, to see friends and family. Satellite Road User Charging is a tax on their mobility.
But the UK needs to do something to solve its congestion problems so why not tax people out of their cars? Won't it work?
Simply because we've tried it with taxing fuel and it hasn't worked. The UK has the highest taxes on fuel in Europe. The reason taxation will not change travellers behaviour is because the majority of travellers have little choice about the times they travel, the way they travel and the roads they use.
UK workers put in the longest hours in Europe and have little flexibility in working times. They need to travel at peak times, when they'll be charged most.
UK road fuel is already the most expensive in Europe because it is taxed at around 75%.
The UK has some of the most expensive public transport in Europe, yet was also damned by the Audit Commission as expensive, unreliable and doesn't go where people want.
The UK has consistently underfunded cycling and motorcycle facilities and offers little incentive for people to choose alternative modes of transport.
Much congestion has been caused by local authorities restricting parking, imposing one-way systems, little-used bus lanes and ineffective traffic calming.
How will Satellite Road User Charging work?
A private company will fit a black box, a Galileo satellite receiver, to your vehicle. This will pinpoint your vehicle exactly on the UK's road network using satellites. It may also record your speed, whether you are parked in a prohibited area and whether or not you are infringing any traffic regulations. The private company will track your vehicle and issue an invoice (or deduct money from a bank account) to pay your mobility tax. At the same time, they will take a significant proportion of the money for themselves to offset the cost of the system and infrastructure.
Charges will be higher at times when people want to travel and in areas they travel to. It is likely that major cities will see the highest charges which will be set at peak hours.
A system based on satellite charging also means Government will be able to vary the tax relatively simply and quickly.
Who is involved?
At a Seminar held at the Institute of Public Policy Research in October 2005, the sponsors were:
It is likely that other profit-making companies are involved with the Scheme.
Will Satellite Road User Charging be based on ability to pay?
The current London Congestion Tax is not based on ability to pay. It seems unlikely that a country-wide system would be. The logistics of setting up tiers of payment would be very complex and give rise to a lot of potential problems. As such, the tax would be regressive, in the same way the Poll Tax was regressive not based in any way on ability to pay.
How much will Satellite Road User Charging cost to introduce?
Initial estimates from the DfT are around £60 billion (to give a comparison, UK drivers pay around £42 billion to the Treasury each year). A large proportion of this is expected to be funded by private companies and multinationals. It seems reasonable that they will expect to recoup their costs.
What about the private companies who will put in the infrastructure?
Private companies have a duty to maximise payments to their shareholders. A huge capital infrastructure project of this nature would place huge demands on the finances of any business and they would look to recoup their costs as quickly as possible. As the UK has already seen with privatised train companies, this does not always lead to good, or even adequate, service.
In addition, there are huge civil liberties implications for unaccountable and unelected private companies tracking the UK's citizens whenever and wherever they travel by car.
ABD Spokesman Mark McArthur-Christie commented
"It seems that Mr Darling is determined to press ahead with his Big Brother mobility tax no matter what. He realises what a potential vote-loser this is, and is now using private firms to front, develop and manage the scheme for him."
What about my civil liberties?
Plans for satellite road user charging inevitably raise Big Brother concerns, centred as the scheme is around satellite-controlled black boxes fitted to vehicles. These black boxes will know the vehicle's location, how fast it is travelling and on which roads. All this data will be recorded and used by private companies to charge drivers a tax for their mileage, based on where and when they travel, potentially with a commission for the work done.
The nature of Satellite Road User Charging means that people will be tracked whenever they use their cars. Information would be held by private businesses, presumably with a right of access to the Police and Government officials. This would be an unprecedented level of surveillance in any country.
As well as your vehicle's location, it is likely that its speed would also be monitored.
In the ABD's view, this poses massive threats to privacy and to civil liberties.
What if it goes wrong — what about appeals against the system?
Many drivers have had great problems appealing against unjustly issued parking tickets from privatised parking enforcement companies. It seems likely that similar problems will be encountered with Satellite Road User Charging systems.
The companies which run the Scheme will inevitably be large, heavily-layered multinationals. Whilst it is hugely unlikely that no appeal processes would be designed, it is debatable how well and how fairly these processes would work.
It seems likely that the private companies running the scheme will need to use call centres to handle questions and the initial stages of appeals. Some people who have called to appeal against unfair Congestion Tax charges have reported very poor handling of their calls. Any call centres may be based in the UK or anywhere in the world.
Should we go ahead with this new Tax?
The ABD believes that the introduction of this mobility tax is mistaken, but not simply because of the implications for civil liberties. Demand for travel is inelastic people need to travel for work, to commute, to see friends and families. This tax is based on the whole premise that people are able to change their travelling behaviour. Although there is potential for commuters to switch to cycling and powered two wheelers for some trips, public transport is, in the government's own words unreliable, expensive and does not go where people want. The majority of travellers will simply have no choice but to pay up.
"We are extremely concerned about any tax that involves satellite and computer technology spying on citizens. When unelected and unaccountable private companies are involved, our concern grows still further. We urge Mr Darling to reconsider."