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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 16:27 GMT

UK Politics

Head to Head: Poll tax on wheels?

Controversial measures to charge motorists for entering town and city centres and for parking at work are included in a new Transport Bill announced in the Queen's Speech.

The Queen's Speech
Although designed to cut congestion and pollution, the charges are likely to be unpopular with motorists.

The RAC foundation's Jonathan Simpson and Friends of the Earth's Roger Higman explain what they think of the proposals.

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The RAC Foundation welcomes the fact that the Queen's Speech contained a major Transport bill which aims to tackle rising congestion in our towns and cities.

Modern-day motorists are not Mr Toad, they are concerned with the environment and pollution. More often than not they also walk, cycle and use public transport in addition to using their car.

RAC Foundation opinion research has shown that motorists will only accept the new congestion charging tax if they can see that the money if they are first being offered viable alternatives. We have found that 75% of motorists think the charge is unfair.

A small majority, some 51%, would find the tax acceptable if they could be convinced that all the money would be reinvested into better roads and public transport.

There is a real danger, therefore, that this charge could be seen as a 'poll tax on wheels' unless motorists can be shown they are getting value for money.

Work place parking may prove to be a divisive policy. Twenty one per cent of the motorists surveyed would consider changing jobs if they were forced to pay to park at work.

The policy could also have environmental and safety consequences with 55% of people suggesting that if work place parking was introduced then they would find an alternative place to park in a residential area.

The work place parking charge would quite simply become a tax on work.

In many towns and cities public transport cannot cope with the numbers of peak time commuters so it would be unfair to charge motorists off the roads before public transport is improved.

The government cannot expect motorists to give up their cars when our public transport system is overcrowded, expensive and unreliable.

We welcome the fact that charges will be ring-fenced to improve transport. But charges will only work if the revenue gained is additional to central funds for transport.

The chancellor has taken his foot off the fuel escalator but will still benefit from VAT on the charging scheme. We need an integrated system which offers a fair deal for all.
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Jonathan Simpson, RAC Foundation.

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At long last the government is introducing legislation to tackle the UK's transport problems.

Slowly but surely Britain's roads are grinding to a halt. Building more is not the answer. Without action, road traffic is forecast to grow by more than a third over the next 20 years.

The alternative isn't to ban the car, but to manage its use. If we can encourage people to use trains, buses, bikes or even walk, where possible, and if we can make public transport better, the roads will be freer for the people that really need to drive.

Experience from Holland and Germany shows that cutting traffic levels makes towns and cities liveable again. It reduces pollution, noise and accidents and actually encourages business. Cities like Amsterdam are bustling with pavement caf_ street entertainers and people enjoying themselves.

Some parts of British cities, like Covent Garden in London, have shown it can be done here. By contrast, many British cities are criss-crossed with dirty, noisy, congested streets. Not surprisingly people don't like shopping there and businesses suffer as a result.

Charging people to enter or to park in city centres is one way of encouraging them to use alternatives - provided the money raised is spent on improving trains and buses, or in building new tram links and bike routes.

But charging isn't appropriate everywhere. That's why Friends of the Earth supports the governments plans, included in the Transport Bill announced today, to give local councils powers to decide whether to charge and how to spend the money raised. It has to be a local decision with full consultation of local people and businesses.

We'll be looking closely at the Bill to make sure councils really are required to spend the money raised from charging on better, cheaper transport systems, so people don't have to drive so much.

We will also be pressing the government to set a national target to cut traffic levels, so that everyone can benefit from the cleaner air, safer streets and prosperity that cutting traffic will bring.

In the meantime, we're pleased with what the government has done.
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Roger Higman, Friends of the Earth

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