Poll Taxes on Wheels

Motorists are threatened with congestion charging and a workplace parking tax - but, in reality, will Blair ever allow them to be implemented outside London?

In the Queen's Speech, the government announced that the forthcoming Transport Bill would include powers for local councils to introduce congestion charging and taxation on workplace parking. Both of these ideas may seem superficially attractive as a means of reducing road congestion. However, they have been rightly condemned as "a poll tax on wheels", and in practice are likely to prove unpopular, unfair and unworkable. They could also end up seriously distorting development patterns and, ironically, result in more urban sprawl and car commuting rather than less.

Congestion Charging

  • It is usually assumed that this would be achieved by a form of electronic charging using transponders fitted in cars. But this would only be practical for regular commuters, and it would be unreasonable and impractical to fine tourists, occasional visitors, and drivers of hire cars, meaning that in practice it would be difficult to achieve without physical toll gates.
  • Would drivers be expected to pay for the transponders themselves, thus imposing yet another additional cost? Would systems vary between different cities, meaning you might have to buy numerous boxes?
  • Electronic charges would inevitably be levied on the registered owner rather than the driver, meaning that people in cities would be reluctant to lend their cars to friends or colleagues. And if your car was stolen, would you still have to pay?
  • Would charges apply to goods vehicles or only private cars? Would they apply to taxis? Would they apply to the disabled? There would be endless scope for argument about exemptions.
  • Many movements are business journeys rather than pure commuting, which employers would have to pay for and would thus add to business costs.
  • It would result in a "halo" effect, encouraging development just outside the boundary of the tolled area, and strongly deterring it just inside, and probably over time simply shifting the pattern of congestion rather than improving it.

Workplace Parking

  • In practice, the basis of charge would be extremely difficult to assess - do you measure it by the number of physical parking spaces, or the number of people actually using them? It would be particularly problematical where onsite parking was provided for customers or other visitors.
  • It would be manifestly unfair to many groups - shift workers, the disabled, women who have to travel home alone late at night, people who work in isolated locations not well served by public transport, if at all, and those who live outside the reach of public transport.
  • If employers bore the cost it would effectively be a headcount tax, while if passed on to employees they would be extremely aggrieved and also demand a personal reserved parking space in return for handing over the money. It could function as a barrier to recruitment.
  • It would encourage on-street parking near workplaces, clogging up roads, making them less safe, and irritating local residents.
  • It would create a strong disincentive to development in areas where it applied, and encourage it in those where it didn't.

Both of these ideas are likely to cause immense practical problems, give rise to numerous disputes and anomalies, and result in strong and widespread opposition. In many ways, they would indeed be "a poll tax on wheels", being, like the poll tax, both unfair and detested. In view of this, I confidently predict that no local council outside London will ever dare introduce either congestion charging or taxation of workplace parking. The cynical might even think that Tony Blair knows this very well, and has included them in the Transport Bill as a sop to the anti-mobility "green" lobby, in the certain knowledge that, if he leaves implementation to the discretion of councils, neither will in reality ever happen. It came as no surprise that, within a week of the Queen's Speech, reports appeared in the press that the government would not approve any congestion charging until 2005 at the very earliest - and how likely is it then, in the run-up to the next-but-one General Election?

(January 2000)

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