“SO THAT’S THE END of our business, then,” said the voice of doom, aka the wife. “What’s that my dear?” I replied. “This levying a £1.34 a mile congestion charge, of course. People just won’t be able to afford it – they’ll just stop using their cars as much,” she explained. “Calm down, my dear,” I responded in my best Michael Winner tone. “It’s not as simple as all that.”
AND OF COURSE IT ISN’T. For a start, the idea of charging per mile is only a proposal and, unless all the political parties swing that way, I can’t think of a greater election-losing idea than suggesting you’re really going to stiff the motorist.
THEN THERE’S THE TECHNOLOGY aspect. Now I know in theory it might be possible using GPS trackers, but we’re talking much more complicated stuff than just identifying whether a vehicle has passed a certain marker post. Having the ability to charge a database of over 20 million cars variable amounts, depending on when and where they have travelled, and then being able to collect that charge by debiting a pre-paid fund, is a pretty tall order for the most technologically astute organisations. On the evidence of the CPA, Family Tax Credits, the NHS computerisation programme and an £80-a-head ID card, among others, I hardly think that the Government qualifies as technologically astute.
THEN THERE’S THE ACTUAL level of charges per mile that would be imposed – £1.34 might make a good newspaper headline but I can’t think of many locations where it would ever be feasible. Apply it to a 30-mile stretch of the M1 and you will find tumbleweed growing in the fast lane. I don’t care how rich you are, you’re not going to fork out £40 for that particular privilege. What you will do is find a host of alternative, cheaper routes. Which will turn quiet secluded lanes into car parks overnight. I can see a potentially massive market opening up for intelligent satellite navigation systems. Instead of merely inputting your destination and whether you want to use motorways or not, you would enter the time you wanted to travel and choose the least-cost option!
ULTIMATELY IT WILL depend on how greedy any government wanted to be. For a car doing 30 miles to the gallon and 8,000 miles a year, the motorist is already paying over 9p a mile in duty and road fund licence. If they were both scrapped that would at least be a starting point, but what government is ever content to totally abolish a source of revenue? What it definitely would do is have a dramatic effect on our working capital requirements – those dealers who have built up a chain on the back of extended credit would certainly have some sleepless nights. As would the credit card and fuelcard operators – 2.25% of 30p a litre ain’t much when you’re used to a retail of 84p. And it goes without saying that our concern over hot fuel would evaporate as fast as a tanker-full of diesel loaded at Coryton!
THE THEORY, of course, is that we would abandon our cars in favour of public transport. The reality is that our public transport can’t cope with the demand it’s already got. The bus and rail networks in all our cities, whether it be London, Birmingham or Manchester are all filled to overcapacity at peak times as it is. The only way of increasing capacity would be ever-higher charges to fund new infrastructure. As a way of reminding the policy makers of the situation, God bless those train operators who couldn’t wait more than two weeks before announcing they were considering their own congestion charges.
SO, IF YOU VASTLY increase the cost for the motorist and whack up the cost of public transport, what do you get? Maybe some drift to increased working from home but the opportunities for that are limited – you can’t serve a customer his McDonalds from the office in the back of your house. More likely is increased pressure to move nearer your place of work, which environmentally is the most preferred option. Except that inflates the cost of housing in those areas and makes it even harder to recruit essential public sector workers like nurses and teachers. Like I said, it ain’t that simple!