You would have to be a very foolish environmental campaigner indeed not to grasp that it’s exactly the kind of privilege represented by the private car that most people aspire to. Peter Roberts, the account manager from Telford, who is leading the campaign against the Government’s proposed road-pricing scheme, undoubtedly understands this. More than 160,000 people have already signed the petition against road pricing that he has put up on the Downing Street website and at this rate, by the time it comes down on February 20, there will be 500,000 signatures.
The objectors come under many different umbrellas: some claim the fitting of “black boxes” to monitor cars and charge drivers is in breach of their human rights. Others voice concern about the impact of such schemes on poorly paid key workers such as nurses. Still more point out there’s no obvious benefit to the car driver from road pricing. The Tories’ transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, argues for a virtuous circle of specific road pricing, where the revenues are used to finance – you guessed it – more roads, but argues spiritedly against a national strategy he describes as “untested” and “unwise”.
As Londoners we can afford to be a little blasÃ© about all this: we’ve had a road-pricing scheme for nearly four years, and haven’t ended up in an automotive Guantanamo Bay. Nor is the congestion charge to blame for our declining local health services. However much people like to kick Ken (me included), the Mayor has made sure road pricing goes hand-in-hand with improvements in public transport. Any national scheme must do the same, ensuring those priced out of driving have an alternative.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds: research shows that the bulk of driving undertaken by lower-income groups is to predetermined destinations for leisure and shopping. But for those signing the petition, a car is the most legitimate of possessions, and anyone who puts them beyond the reach of the less-well-off has a heart as hard as bitumen.
Yes, preventing congestion on Britain’s roads and reducing pollution will require curbing our demand for driving. And if road-pricing schemes charge more for gas-guzzling cars, as three London boroughs now intend to do, it will hit upwardly mobile petrol heads hard, while the very rich will just keep on cruising.
Is this unfair? Yes – but then any society that allows massive income inequality is unfair. Does it breach drivers’ rights? No, because along with rights come responsibilities, and as things are, drivers are taking none for the broader environment.
Peter Roberts admits to a seemingly paradoxical set of beliefs: opposing road pricing but believing public transport should be publicly owned. In fact, there’s no conflict here if only Roberts could do joined-up thinking, he’d understand that a coordinated transport policy, involving both subsidised public transport and road pricing, is the best possible form of joined-up government.