Opinion: Motorway tolls – a step on the road to a progressive, green and Liberal Britain

Privatisation and progressive politics are not always natural bedfellows, so Tory veteran Tim Yeo’s suggestion that motorways could be privatised and tolls erected in the interests of the fight against climate change was always likely to be greeted with a mixture of suspicion and scepticism by Lib Dems.

But like most privatisations – if done correctly – Mr Yeo’s proposals could lead to a fairer, greener and more Liberal Britain.

The existing tax on road usage is road tax, which is essentially regressive as it doesn’t take income and amount of usage of the road network into account. While road tolls do not address the first part of this, income, they do take road usage into account and thus, with a corresponding drop in motor tax, could be fairer, as the tax is charged on the basis of usage.

This is also a policy which is green, as it helps to promote transport methods other than road, with Mr Yeo also proposing that the funds raised could partially go towards improving the public transport provision.

The government would receive income in two ways from this idea. The first is lump sum payments for the motorways, and a share of the revenue generated: the former could be used for capital expenditure, such as on railway improvements and other job creation initiatives, while the latter could be used to reverse a part of the VAT rise. This could help to make the budget for the next year a little more progressive and a little more environmentally friendly.

And finally, the idea of charging per use of road, rather than a blanket charge, is more liberal, as it allows the individual to choose the extent of the tax they pay, and the service they use. This removes power from central government to arbitrarily raise the tax they receive from motorists whenever they feel they can politically get away with it.

* David Thorpe is a Lib Dem member in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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  • Tolls are flat charges – poorer drivers will be hit more. If they’re privatised, a company takes a share for profit, so drivers pay to fill shareholders pockets. They may be necessary for green reasons (though taxing fuel is the most efficient way to tax people based on how much they drive), but don’t try and pretend it’s progressive. You look silly.

  • This is risible.

    Here at Liberal Democrat voice, you seem to believe that dropping ‘progressive’ in front of anything will make it fair and just.

    On this sort of logic, the £600 cut a year in Housing Benefit that thousands of people will receive under the stewardship of Laws + Alexander is progressive, as they can choose to move to cheaper areas of the country!

    The logic is truly backward. Road tolls are progressive but road tax is regressive as it’s not linked to income? OK…but can’t I buy a smaller car to save road tax which would reduce the sum – making it progressive? And as the road tolls would be charged per mile it’s progressive as I could choose not to travel? Or to put it in a way everyone else understands – if you’re not rich you’ll be priced off the roads!

    What about the green argument – that we’ll all start choosing public transport. FIne, if the alternatives (trains especially) are publically owned to ensure that the fares can be lowered. But can you imagine GNER dropping fares to make it easier for ex-car drivers to afford it? No!

    This is getting ludicrous! Your political masterstroke, meant to raise your poll ratings no doubt, is to justify every single policy released by the Tories as progressive in a desperate attempt to avoid debating it.

    You’re beyond silly these days…

  • Having recently started driving a lot for my commute (due to a new job, courtesy of the recession), I’ve come to appreciate just how awful the state of the roads in this country are. (I’ve driven quite a bit on German and Swiss roads and they are much better!) On many A-roads I find myself swerving left and right as I have to slalom around potholes. I’ve memorised most of them by now :(. If I forget one I get a jarring shudder rip through my car as my suspension get destroyed.

    I would take the train, I always used to commute by train, but while it takes me an hour with the car, it would take me 3 to 4 hours by train. In fact, the only way to get to work on time by train would be to leave the previous day! Using official mileage rates from HMRC it costs me £30 by car to commute a day. The cheapest return train fare I could find (off-peak) was £75. In reality my journey costs me around £8 in fuel for the return journey (tax + insurance, annual servicing costs etc add another £3 to the daily journey), so £11, and I get to use it for other stuff too!)

    Why don’t I move? I like my local friends, I like the area, and I can’t afford to move, because there’s no houses available, they cost much more than they’re actually worth, and to get the same level of infrastructure I enjoy now, I’d have to move so far out from my work, I’d be as far away again as I already am.

    What would I like from road/car/transport taxes? I want good quality roads that are suitable for the traffic levels and don’t have me fearful for my suspension, or have me crawling along in first and second gear. My fuel consumption for each trip (which I watch carefully) drops from 43mpg to 37mpg if I get stuck on the M25. Instead of cruising at the engine’s ideal efficient of around 60-70 mph, I’m accelerating, breaking, stopping/starting etc. If our roads could actually handle the level of traffic we’d lower CO2 emissions massively already.

    Ideally I’d actually want to be able to take the train to work, or walk or cycle, that it doesn’t take longer than my commute now, and that it doesn’t cost more than my current commute, and that I have as much space to be as comfortable as I am in my car. I used to commute into central London by train. It was awful, and then even the cheapest travel card for that 35 minute commute (each way) costs per year more than my car costs now to commute three times the distance in twice the time, and I’m no longer squashed between people, or standing for the whole trip.

    I agree with Jennie that tax on petrol is the fairest way to tax road use. Even with petrol prices as high as they are now, I’d be prepared to pay a bit more if I was certain that the money would go to improving the roads, that it goes to improving the efficiency of cars produced. Once they’re up to scratch then use any spare money to improve other transport.

    Just like the Germans and the Swiss, I’d be prepared to pay a bit more on road/car tax if it would improve the road network. But form what I can tell all the road/petrol tax collected disappears into the treasury and none of it is actually spent on the roads… hence their crap condition.

    We need a complete transport system overhaul. It will be expensive, and it will require more taxes, but no one is prepared to pay them it seems and no government is prepared to suggest it. After all, such a program would take at least a decade and be very disruptive. Any government that suggested it wouldn’t be the government much longer.

    So I’m stuck dodging potholes and burning CO2 until either I’m taxed off the roads and have to find a new job (or go on the dole) , someone decides to build enough houses/infrastructure for the country and I can then afford to move, or someone improves the public transport connections enough to make them convenient, comfortable and affordable.

    What does it say about the poor state of our country that the former is the most likely?

  • Taxing fuel is by far the most progressive way to tax road use, as it has the greatest impact on those who drive the most and those who have the largest cars (who tend to be wealthier). It is also the greenest way, as it rewards those with more efficient cars (indeed, drivers of electric cars, avoid it altogether).

    Road tax is the least progressive, as it hits the poor disproportionately (and I would happily see it abolished). Motorway tolls are slightly better as I suspect the poor are likely to use motorways less, but it’s still a pretty regressive tax.

    I do agree that we need to be careful before banding around terms such as “progressive” and “green”. Having genuinely progressive and green policies has long been something that distinguished the Lib Dems from the Tories and New Labour, whose spin-doctors have proved adept at blithely appropriating and manipulating such terms..

  • david thorpe 24th Jul '10 - 4:23pm

    Im not suggesting it as an alternativer to fuel duty, which is somehting we alreday have and which is progressive in its own way, Im suggetsing it as an alternative to road tax, which is not progressive. does, but in a way which the road tax doesnt do so tolls aref fairer to those who drive least and punish those who drive(and pollute more)

  • I notice david, that you won’t (or can’t) answer the point on road tax.

    It is progressive – if your logic is to be followed – in that I can choose, because I am poor, to buy a smaller engined car. If I do – the road tax will be less. Therefore It is super-duper progressive!

    Drop the pretence. Your only progression is your progression towards unabashed Conservatism

  • Colin Green 24th Jul '10 - 5:49pm

    Road tolls are just as regressive as a flat rate road tax. Suggesting otherwise is just silly. It isn’t that green either. Taxing fuel – the source of carbon emissions, is far greener. That way a more environmentally friendly car pays less than more polluting ones. Also, for the same type of car, a driver who drives in a more efficient way pays less than someone who drives more carelessly.

    If you genuinely want a progressive way of funding roads, make them free at the source of use and fund them out of general taxation. Like we do now. Next you’re going to say that motoring taxes are there to pay for transport, rather than disappearing into the abyss of HM Treasury’s vault.

  • What makes the cost of government onerous to the average person is not so much the total cost as the multiplication of charges, taxes, duties, rates, and fees. I think most people would rather pay a big sum in one place than be nibbled to death by a thousand little bites.

    What is the purpose of the toll, anyway? To raise money, or to discourage driving? It would have both effects (the latter, of course, detracting from the former). But in the latter case, it may well end up mostly discouraging those who drive the cleanest, most efficient vehicles, unless it is more specifically targeted (which a toll, of its very nature, can hardly be).

  • Steve Comer 25th Jul '10 - 1:06am

    Oh great, so we privatise the tarmac eh?
    In a few limited circumstances tolls work, but in reality all that will happen is that those rich enough to drive gas guzzlers will pay up and use the motorways, and everyone else will just shift to the non-tolls roads and make congestion even worse! Summer season her in the West of England will be a time of towns and cities being completely gridlocked with traffic, just as they were before the M4 and M5 were built.
    Come on you free market maniacs, even you can do better than this!

  • Perhaps those who oppose road tolls would care to look across the channel at France where I drive a lot and indeed Italy anSpain also. As far as I can see the fact the motorways cost money to use has not in any way transfered trafic awa from them. There might be some sense in taking up the French idea (why are we never willing to look at other countries’ experiences?) of banning HGV’s from some non-motorway routes particularly through towns?

  • I live in Switzerland, and the method here is to pay a fixed fee per-year to use the motorways. It works because it’s low enough for the vast majority of people to just pay it if they think they’ll use them, and there is a good enough network of non-motorway regional roads that those who can’t afford it can use those. The money then partly goes on keeping up the motorways, which are very good. It’s an option to consider, although it’s worth noting that one reason why it’s necessary is the highly devolved federal system in Switzerland that makes central funding of things like motorways difficult. Since central funding is useful because otherwise cantons might refuse to fund upkeep if they don’t feel a particular motorway is in their best interests, despite it’s national-interest implications, a tied tax in the form of a motorway fee is the answer.

  • david thorpe 25th Jul '10 - 7:44pm


    i dont quite see where you are coming from, yes they could have a smaller car, but its not super duper progressive, after all its still a flat tax on car ownerhsip, rather than a tax on the ngatives of car ownerhsip i.e. pollution, and having an expensive, powerful car and driving it less than a person driving a smaller engiend car less.
    @carlton reid.

    why should people be taxed for owning a car, nits not somehting I object to, do you?
    surely its more progressive to tax on the basis of the harm they do rather than a flat tax on owning a car?

  • David thorpe

    Your response to my post is, excuse me for saying, gibberish

  • david thorpe 26th Jul '10 - 11:32am

    I dont unbders6tand what you mean cuse.

    i made a point about your referring to car tax as progressive saying it isnt really

  • Toll roads would be a very dangerous innovation, for the following reasons:

    (1) Imagine the effect of erecting turnstiles at every single entry to the M25, or any other motorway. What would this do to journey times, motorists’ blood pressures, over-heated engines, and yes, the tailbacks down into Leatherhead, Swanley, Godstone, etc, etc, etc? The Schengen Agreement was concluded to deal with precisely this kind of problem.

    (2) The alternative to turnstiles would be satellite surveillance of motor vehicles. Through a chip fitted into our vehicles, the state would be able to watch our every move.

    Road pricing (remember that?) had nothing to do with reducing traffic congestion and everything to do with the furtherance of the control agenda. Who has been putting ideas into Mr Yeo’s head?

  • I don’t think Phillip Hammond could have been clearer on this topic:

    “The coalition Government have indeed ruled out the tolling of the existing road network for the duration of this Parliament.”
    Topical questions – 22nd July

  • Terry Gilbert 26th Jul '10 - 9:43pm

    Could this be the same Tim Yeo who was once banned for speeding at considerably in excess of the limit in his Japanese supercar? Now he is a ‘convert’ (in public at least), I wonder how he gets on with his neighbouring Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, who thinks there is a ‘lunatic consensus’ over climate change?

    The Tory Party really do need challenging on these issues, even if some of our ‘friends’ are now supposed to be ‘friends’ of theirs.

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