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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 January 2007, 13:44 GMT
Road charge petition tops 230,000
M6 toll road
"Pay-as-you-drive" charging is one idea under consideration
The government says the argument for road pricing "has to be made", despite an online petition against the move gaining more than 230,000 signatures.

The petition, which is the most popular on the Downing Street website, calls for the scrapping of "planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy".

But No 10 has insisted that doing nothing would lead to a 25% increase in congestion "in less than a decade".

The petitioners argue that road charging would be an "unfair tax".

The petition was posted on the No 10 site by Peter Roberts, of Telford, Shropshire, who has been a member of the Association of British Drivers (ABD) since 2001.

While the ABD has called for a referendum on the issue "as soon as possible", it insists Mr Roberts acted as an individual and not on behalf of the organisation.

Plans to introduce a nationwide "pay-as-you-drive" system were unveiled by the former Transport Secretary Alistair Darling in 2005.

Proposals

A feasibility study commissioned by the government in 2004 set out proposals for a scheme under which motorists would be charged variable fees according to the distance travelled.

Mr Darling's successor, Douglas Alexander, has since suggested that road pricing could be brought in within a decade.

He was responding to a study chaired by the former BA chief executive, Sir Rod Eddington, which said charging could benefit the economy by 28bn a year.

Downing Street said 10 local authorities had been asked to come up with proposals for local road pricing by July, and there would be consultation after that.

The prime minister's official spokesman acknowledged that people "did feel strongly about this issue, but feeling strongly was not a substitute for coming up with practical proposals."

While the ABD's Mark McArthur-Christie accepted the petition would have "no impact on policy", the association's members felt very strongly about road charging.

"I hope it is taken seriously. A lot of people are very, very worried.

"We're being asked to sign a blank cheque for something we haven't seen," he said.

The ABD is calling for consideration to be given to other options to reduce congestion.

Mr McArthur-Christie said: "A whole raft of thinking needs to be joined.

"There's a host of brilliant alternatives to the car."

Message

A paper produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in November 2006 suggested that while 90% of people think congestion is a problem, only 40% support the introduction of road pricing.

The IPPR concluded that with strong leadership and more information, the public could be won round to accepting it.
London congestion charge sign
London is the first British city to introduce road charging

The Conservative's transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, said the level of opposition was more an indictment of the message rather than the policy.

"I think the big issue is that the government hasn't really explained itself," he said.

"The scale of what the government is proposing - moving to a national road pricing scheme where everyone is charged for every road they drive on - I think that's for the birds."

However Mr Grayling said there was a role in the future for road pricing, but that it should be used to fund particular improvements to the infrastructure.

Other motoring organisations have also called for better communication with motorists over the nature of any charging scheme.

Edmund King, director of the RAC Foundation, said the petition highlighted a significant problem for ministers.

"It clearly shows government has a massive job on its hands to convince people of the benefits of road pricing.

"The only way we would see it going forward, is if an independent body is set up to oversee a pricing system, whereby there were cast-iron guarantees the motorist would get something back - tax reductions, or improvements in public transport."

His view is echoed by the campaign group Transport 2000, which advocates a pricing system for the environmental benefits it would bring.

Executive director Stephen Joseph said: "What this petition shows, as we've been saying all along, is that road charging on its own is never going to be acceptable.

"We think we will need some kind of road charging, but it needs to be part of a bigger package, including reductions in taxes."




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