Commons Gate

Taxes and charges on road users (HC 103-i)

Transport Committee 17 Dec 2008

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Evidence given by:
2.45 The Automobile Association Edmund King, President
Association of British Drivers Malcolm Heymer, Traffic Management Adviser
National Alliance Against Tolls John McGoldrick, Coordinator
Drivers’ Alliance Ltd Peter Roberts, Director
3.45 Campaign for Better Transport Stephen Joseph OBE, Executive Director
Campaign to Protect Rural England Ralph Smyth, Senior Transport Campaigner
Natural England Andrew Wood, Executive Director, Evidence and Policy
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) John Leach, President
Unite the Union Graham Stevenson, National Organiser, Transport Sector

Q22 Chairman: What should taxes and charges on roads be used for? Does anyone else have a view?

Mr Roberts: Predominantly, I think taxes and charges on the road should fund the road network and the transport system. We have got general taxation which provides hospitals and schools, and the road user, if you like, subsidises that to a large degree, which is unique in user groups. No other group funds the Treasury to this kind of degree in excess of what the Government spends back on supporting those user groups.

Q23 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What about people who drink?

Mr Roberts: Fair comment, yes, drinking tax is also too high.

Q24 Chairman: Are you saying then that charges and taxes on road users should not go to areas like hospitals and policing?

Mr Roberts: No, I am not saying that.

Q25 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is that a general view?

Mr McGoldrick: It is a political decision.


Mr King: There is some evidence from the Road Users Alliance. They have got something called Road File that shows expenditure per capita in all European countries and then it links it to taxation, and I do not remember the exact figure, but I know that we are fairly near the bottom and not near the top in terms of that. If you look at motorway length per head in European countries, again, we are much lower down. Of course, we are a smaller country, but per vehicle, on all those counts, we are relatively low down.

Mr Heymer: Also, if you look at the length of motorway per billion dollars of GDP, we are about a third of the EU 25 average. So the size of our road network, or strategic road network is very much smaller than that of comparable European countries.

Q37 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I first take exception to the point you made about the motorways. What is your definition of a motorway?

Mr King: Definition of a motorway? It is a road with a hard shoulder and a central reservation.

Q38 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You would accept that a lot of them on the Continent are two lanes and not three lanes.

Mr King: Yes.

Q39 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So we are not comparing like with like?

Mr King: No, if you recall, a motorway in France can have two lanes or three lanes.

Q40 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But the reality is that the definition of a motorway is very vague, is it not?

Mr King: Not too vague, no.

Q41 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think you will find it is. Can we come back to the cost of motoring. The RAC have submitted evidence to us - unfortunately they cannot be here today - saying that in the last 20 years the real cost of motoring to the individual has decreased by 18%. Would the panel agree with that?

Mr Roberts: Personally, I did some research on this a couple of months ago and, with the increase in fuel costs as it was in September, October, no, I do not think in real terms motoring has decreased.

Q42 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It has not decreased at all in 20 years?

Mr Roberts: From the study I did, the fuel cost itself had increased in real terms by 35-40%, whereas the taxation on motoring had stayed roughly the same in real terms. The cost of buying a car, because the motor industry has been very efficient, has gone down. So the purchase cost has reduced but the actual running cost of a car has increased in real terms, yes.

Q43 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr King, do you agree that the costs of running a car have gone up over the last 20 years?

Mr King: No, some of the costs have come down.

Q44 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You would agree with the RAC that it has come down?

Mr King: I think their figures are slightly inflated, because if you look at household expenditure, government figures, so if you look per household at what people spend on motoring, for those on low incomes they are spending 24% of their household income on motoring, which is about the same as they were ten years ago. So, certainly for those people, it has not come down and it is still the biggest single item of household expenditure, and I think that is the way we should look at it.

Q45 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We can look at it and see that a lot more people run cars now than they did 20 years ago. Therefore, people can afford them now that could not 20 years ago?

Mr King: Yes, certainly.

Q46 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I go on to the M6 toll. What are the views of the witnesses on the M6 toll?

Mr Roberts: I live very close to the M6 toll and have occasion to not use it as often as possible - the reason being that it is overly expensive. It is going up to £4.70 to use as from January and it is an extremely under-utilised and very valuable resource that the country is losing out on. There is a level of congestion on the M6, the old M6, which could be alleviated over night if that road was toll-free or if it was shadow tolled. We could completely wipe out all the costs of congestion pretty much in the West Midlands by making the M6 toll a toll-free road, and it would not cost that much to do it. If you offset the cost of the congestion to the cost of maybe giving road shadow tolls or purchasing it, we would alleviate an enormous amount of congestion in the West Midlands.

Q47 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is not the reality that the M6 toll should never have been built?

Mr Roberts: That was a political decision at the time, but, yes, probably.

Q48 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is the reality.

Mr King: Part of the reality is it might have been built sooner, because it was in the roads programme and the Birmingham Northern Relief Road and when it was transferred to be a private road it had to go through two more public inquiries. It is interesting, on the M6 toll, that currently the usage is going down. In the last quarter the figures were 12% down overall, but on weekends and bank holidays I think it was 16% down, which reflects that when fuel prices are high and motorists are having to watch their expenditure they do not have much of an appetite for paying tolls.

Q49 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What you say is that people are taking the choice not to use the M6 toll?

Mr King: More recently, because of the high cost of fuel, the figures, yes, on those using---

Q50 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Really what I am aiming at is do you believe we should replicate the M6 toll in other parts of the country: that private motorways be built and the opportunity be given for it?

Mr King: If a private motorway speeded up in an area where there is severe capacity shortage, and if it was clear that the Government was not going to spend on roads. I mean, one of the things we have looked at is whether you could have high occupancy toll lanes, not a whole new motorway but have an extra lane put on an existing motorway, and then, rather like the experience in California, if you are car-sharing you get it free of charge, if you are driving alone you pay a small toll. If that speeded up the provision of extra capacity, that is something we think should be piloted to see if it works.

Mr McGoldrick: We would not agree with that at all.


Q69 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Going quickly back to Manchester, one presumes that is the last referendum we are going to have anywhere in the country on road pricing for towns?

Mr Roberts: Yes.

Q70 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Roberts, you can argue the case against road pricing, but you have not told the people of my constituency when they are going to see some relief from congestion. You cannot build extra roads, but we have a congestion problem. We are not going to have town pricing. At some point in the future, I think it is a long time in the future, we are going to get the technology and we are going to have to look at road pricing, but what is your answer to congestion in towns, Mr Roberts?

Mr Roberts: Whereabouts is your constituency?

Q71 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Carlisle, near Scotland.

Mr Roberts: I have been there. I did not actually experience any congestion in Carlisle when I drove through, but that is besides the point.

Q72 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You probably would have used the M6 and driven past.

Mr Roberts: No, I drove through the centre.

Q73 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You must have been going there in the middle of the night.

Mr Roberts: It was about 10.00 o’clock.

Q74 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What is your answer to congestion in the cities?

Mr Roberts: There is a big issue here, because just about every major conurbation we see has seen a reduction in traffic volumes over the last ten to 20 years. Manchester, for instance, has seen a reduction within the charging zone of around 14%, the West Midlands has seen a big reduction in volumes of traffic within the conurbation, yet we see reduction in traffic speeds, and what we see is, effectively, an increase in congestion because traffic speed is a measure of congestion. So, clearly, we are doing something wrong. The current traffic management schemes we are putting in place are causing far more problems than they are solving and ideas where we put traffic lights on roundabouts which are perfectly free flowing - we take roundabouts out and put traffic lights at junctions in where the roundabout was coping perfectly well - following the engineering changes, the traffic lights cause huge problems. What we have been doing in the last ten years is increasing congestion whilst traffic levels are falling. You cannot blame the driver for that. That is down to policy.

Q75 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is all down to traffic engineers, that is what you are saying.

Mr Roberts: It is down to traffic policy over the last ten to 15 years, yes, or a lot of it is.

Q76 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The fact that more people own cars than ever before---

Mr Roberts: That is not true. The traffic levels in city centres---

Q77 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am sorry, it is. More people than ever before own cars. Is that not true, Mr King?

Mr King: Yes, it is.

Mr Roberts: Yes, they own cars, but the traffic levels within the city centre, specifically Manchester and the West Midlands, has fallen.

Q78 Chairman: So you are saying, Mr Roberts, the answer to the situation is to do with traffic management?

Mr Roberts: We have got a scheme in the West Midlands called Quick Wins. I am a member of the West Midlands Business Transport Group and what we have been doing is looking at congestion pinch points in the West Midlands, in the Birmingham conurbation, and we have asked the public, we have asked business to send us examples of where they believe there is a particular problem. We have got 160 Quick Wins which will be targeted over the next 18 months to two years where we will go into each of these specific pinch points and we will re-engineer those junctions to ensure the traffic flows more freely, and that will go a long way to freeing up some of the congestion we see, and I think, personally, that is something we should be rolling out across the country.

Q79 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr King, do you agree with the analysis of why we have got congestion in the cities?

Mr King: I do agree that traffic management is part of it. If you look at London, the Central London congestion charge came in. We are now back to the original levels, and if you look at that, the number of cars has not increased, it has reduced in London, street works are still badly co-ordinated - that is still a major problem in London and other Metropolitan areas. Some road-calming schemes have created pinch points on certain roads, so it has reduced capacity, but, ultimately, in towns and cities it is a culmination of better traffic management, park and ride and better public transport. The sad thing about Manchester is that the people of Manchester were held to ransom and were told: either go for this charging and have public transport or, basically, get nothing, and that is a shame because I think Manchester needs some better public transport and we think that money should have gone in there anyway from some of the 45 billion that motorists are paying.


Q91 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The list of companies you read out there are all foreign owned companies. We have BMW, Nissan, Toyota, who are all making the smaller vehicles in this country. We do not have any UK owned manufacturers any more, do we?

Mr Roberts: No, but they employ UK people.

Q92 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So does Toyota and Nissan, especially in Sunderland?

Mr Roberts: And Honda. Very much so. The thing that worries me is the UK manufacturing industry is more of a supply base because the supply base is going to suffer very badly in the next three to six months.

Q93 Chairman: Do you agree with applying the new rates to cars purchased as far back as 2000? Nods do not go down on our record. Yes or no.

Mr Roberts: No.

Mr McGoldrick: Well, obviously, because I do not think most of us think that vehicle excise duty is a good tax anyway. It is a standing charge.

Mr Roberts: The problem I have with this is it is a retrospective tax on people’s purchasing decisions they made some time ago. If VED is there to encourage a choice in purchase, it cannot do that when they have already bought the car several years ago; so you have increased the tax on someone who cannot make a choice to change that vehicle. What has also happened is the market for those vehicles has fallen, so you cannot dump them and get rid of them and buy a new car, because that value has gone. So I think it is a very bad move.

Mr King: Yes, certainly the retrospective nature of it, I think, was a mistake and the Government has taken some action to rectify that. I think for new cars though, where people do have a choice, if you need an estate car, there is a difference between the best in class and the worst in class. You might need an estate car because you need four choices. VED might be one factor that influences that choice. If the VED is less because there is less CO2, that may lead to a choice of a greener, cleaner car. I do not have any problem with that.

Mr Heymer: As Mr Robertson and Mr McGoldrick said, we basically are opposed to VED anyway but the retrospective aspects of the proposal that have now been revised are even more strongly opposed, for the reasons that have just been stated. They penalise a decision that has already been made.


Q118 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Your comment when you related alcohol and tobacco tax to motoring tax says a great deal about your organisation’s views about motoring. The reality of what you just said to Mr Leech is not correct. If tomorrow we cut fares on the railways by half, we would not have anywhere near the capacity to deal with the problem. I know and you know that there are more people travelling on the railway now than at any time since the 1950s. It is all right to say but the reality in the short term - I think you mentioned by 2013?

Mr Joseph: 2025.

Q119 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The reality is that that will not happen and if you did it you would just create another problem. Is that not correct?

Mr Joseph: We are not saying that fares rises are the only part of the story. What we are saying is that we will need extra capacity on public transport, bus and rail and tram too in some cases, but that doing what the government is currently doing, which is mainly charging users for it and moving to a system where users pay much more as we will see with the rail fares rises in January, which will be substantially above the current inflation rate, partly to enable for example the rail users in Kent to pay for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and paying for that extra capacity through large scale fares rises is not going to meet wider economic and environmental goals. It will go in the wrong direction. It will be socially inequitable and it is out of line with what other European countries do who use a much wider range of taxes and charges to fund their transport system.

Q120 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What do you say to those who say, "The reality is that growth in rail traffic is much greater in the UK than it has been in Europe over the last ten years"?

Mr Joseph: It has been very much greater and we welcome that. We want to see the capacity put in to cater for that, rather than cutting off demand through high fares rises or indeed the government’s current policy which is to shift the cost of providing the rail system from one which is roughly 50/50 taxpayers and fare payers to one which is 75% fare payers. We think that will add to pollution, congestion and social inequity, particularly for some local journeys in parts of the north of England.

Q121 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am not convinced that the government would agree with that. Let us go on to buses. We now have a system where probably 30% of the adult population travel free. While we have seen some increases, it does not seem to be the shift that you would suggest by your comments earlier.

Mr Joseph: The fact is that public transport fares and bus fares have gone up.

Q122 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The fact is 30% travel free now.

Mr Joseph: Yes, but for those who pay fares which is most of the working population bus fares have increased in real terms. For social equity, for environmental and also for dealing with local congestion reasons, we are going to have to change that.


Q137 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just a comment that probably the most successful congestion charge is London. They did not have a referendum. I wondered whether they would have voted yes or no. That is probably for another time. Earlier on Mr Roberts made a very strong defence that the real problem in the cities was that, although the number of cars had reduced, congestion was greater because of the traffic management scheme. He suggested that we should go back and look at that; I would be interested in what the witnesses say. The other thing he was interested in, it seemed to me he indicated, was that we should be speeding up traffic in the cities. Do our witnesses think it is a good idea that we should have faster moving traffic in the cities, bearing in mind there are people who live there as well?

Mr Leach: Generally speaking, no. What we want is a safer, greener environment and the members of my union and people who are employed either as bus drivers or in the road transport sector would share that view in general terms and certainly they would not want to see things speeded up. To answer the question simply, no, I do not think so.

Mr Smyth: I think the big issue about jogging congestion is that you are measuring metal boxes and not people. You go outside into Parliament Square and you might see a bus with 40 people in and then a taxi which is empty, quite often the driver. What matters is how long it takes people to get to work, the resilience and the delays in their journey, not simply how many metal boxes get through a junction. In Parliament Square, for example, Boris Johnson has cancelled a scheme to pedestrianise one side and he has not looked at the journey time for people walking across the square or cycling through the square. It is simply equating one full bus with an empty taxi in terms of what is congested and what is not.

Q138 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): First, one of the points that Mr Roberts made was the fault was down to the new traffic design, new traffic management. Do you accept that argument?

Mr Smyth: If you are looking at the actual journey times, people who are changing to smarter choices, cycling and buses, for example, their journeys are going faster. There are problems in the west of London because of all the roadworks going on so there are problems with the data there. Generally, the way to get people moving faster and have more reliable journeys to work is to get them to make smarter choices.

Mr Joseph: I do not buy the argument that was put by Mr Roberts either in the numbers in terms of traffic. Maybe in city centres it may be true that traffic has been reducing, but if you look over a wide area you find that traffic has continued to increase in, say, Greater London or Greater Manchester. Obviously recession will change that, but in general that has been the situation. It has not been increasing as fast as GDP, but it has been increasing. I also do not buy the argument that there have been large scale problems caused by traffic management at this. I think that speeding up traffic in cities is a bit of a chimera actually because you can remove one bottleneck and it will speed up traffic going to the next junction where there is another bottleneck and you will never get to the point where you have got free flowing traffic. It is possible to manage traffic lights so they are connected and so on, so there is a greenway or something, that is legitimate, but a lot of traffic engineers do that anyway. As my colleague said, what the question is, which Mr Roberts and his organisation tend to ignore, is that there are people on foot in cities and also in many cases they equate to more than the people in metal boxes and ought to get due preference at traffic lights.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB