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Falling fuel duty could put tolls back on the agenda

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The impending sale of the M6 toll road and rise in ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) has reignited the debate over alternative taxation models and whether pay-as-you go road pricing has a future in the UK.

The Government says it has no plans to introduce road pricing, but falling fuel duty has led some to suggest it is only a matter of time before alternative revenue streams are sought to plug the shortfall.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “I think road pricing is a fabulous economic theory that is extraordinarily hard to make work in practice.

“If it could be made to work I suspect somebody somewhere in the world would have done it by now and nobody has.” 

However, Gooding told delegates at the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum that the “growth in traffic is going to continue to put strain on the network and it’s probably something we can’t just build our way out of”.

He also acknowledged that changes in the vehicle parc, with more ULEVs being adopted, meant that traditional motoring taxes will have to be revisited. As a result, he predicts that road pricing could be introduced in 20 years.

Baroness Kramer, a former transport minister in the coalition Government, also believes the shift to ULEVs will make fuel taxation an irrelevance and force the Government to find another way to cover the shortfall.

However, she said: “The problem is when you have a system the losers all scream and the winners take the benefit for granted, so it’s very difficult to make such a fundamental change.”

The M6 toll, which went up for sale in February, is currently the only stretch of the road network where company car and van drivers are required to pay a toll apart from bridges and tunnels such as the Severn Bridge and Dartford crossing.

It starts at junction 3a, running through the north east of the West Midlands before rejoining the M6 at junction 11a, and opened in December, 2003, at a cost of £900 million.

Usage has been an issue. An estimated 200,000 vehicles pass through the ‘spaghetti junction’ on the M6 every day, while the M6 toll road section only serves about 50,000.

It was originally forecast that the 27-mile stretch of motorway would cater for 72,000 vehicles a day.

Charges vary, based on the type of vehicle and the day of the week, but can be up to £5.50 for a car, £10 for car and trailer, and £11 for an HGV, van or coach.

The problems facing the toll road, operated by Midland Expressway, a subsidiary of Macquarie, have been compounded by its debt.

It is 100% owned by a group of 27 banks and hedge funds, with a total debt of some £1.9bn, following a debt restructuring in December 2013. Any sale is expected to generate enough money to fully recover that debt.

In recent years, traffic numbers using the toll have at least increased, with 17.4m vehicles using the road in 2015 – a 12.5% increase on the previous year.

Reported losses were also down from £32.5m in 2013 to £28.6m in 2014.

Councillor Darren Cooper, leader of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, a member of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), has written to the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin suggesting a partnership to take over the M6 toll road.

He is frustrated that when there is an accident on the M6 it grinds to a halt, yet the toll road can be virtually empty.

Cooper says reducing the tolls to zero during an emergency, such as a major incident on the M6, could provide a solution. McLoughlin has said he will look at the suggestion.

“At the very least we have to get arrangements in place so that the M6 toll can be opened up for free use when there is a serious incident on the M6 or M5,” said Cooper.

As part of its devolution plans, the WMCA had previously suggested making the road free for HGVs, at an estimated annual cost of £15m, but no agreement from the Government was forthcoming.


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  • Darren - 09/03/2016 11:17

    A news paper article just yesterday stated "Fuel tax a staggering 74%", add into that VED and VAT from vehicle purchasing, buying spares, servicing etc, does the government really need more ways to fleece the UK car driver?

  • Edward Handley - 09/03/2016 20:39

    The problem with toll roads everywhere is that motorists and professional drivers automatically use free roads unless there are massive time/economic benefits in paying the toll. Most French, Spanish and Italian motorways are tolled and as a result the vast majority of commercial traffic, and a significant proportion of private cars do not use them. It makes them joyous to use if you can afford it because they are so quiet and stress free, but the downside is that people living adjacent to the free national roads suffer a vast amount of unnecessary noise, congestion and pollution as heavy trucks rumble past their homes. The UK motorway and APTR (all purpose trunk roads) are the safest roads we have - they are 3% of the road network by length, carry something close to 50% of all commercial traffic but have only 4% of all collisions, so anything that resulted in traffic shifting from the motorway/APTR network would be very bad for safety. In economic terms it would make very good sense for the Government to take over the M6 toll and run it as a free and integral part of the motorway network all the time as doing so would reduce congestion and pollution around Birmingham and would improve the quality of life of a huge number of people while reducing the burden on the NHS. Sadly I doubt this will happen as Governments are so obsessed with "self funding" while forgetting that the motorist and logistics industry pay far more in taxes than has ever been spent on the roads!

    • Darren - 10/03/2016 11:57

      "if you can afford it " I think this is the key here. Are we producing a two tier traffic system in the UK? Empty, quiet roads only used by the elite and chock full, pothole infested, dangerous back roads for everyone else? That doesn't sound like a nice country to live in, and very 'them and us' elitist.

  • Roger - 09/03/2016 20:44

    Darren Cooper has a good idea here. I would suggest that the Govt buy it back and use it as a relief road for through traffic (as was intended) AT NO COST TO ANY VEHICLE as a good gesture not only to users but also to help and assist the North West businesses. Politically it would be a vote winner-but more than that just a good practical answer. Drivers will not willingly pay, and this white elephant has proved it.

  • bob - 12/03/2016 22:37

    As a frequent user of the Toll judging by the almost exclusively 'company metal' you see using it, the only customers are people like me on business miles with an expense account to charge it too, we will use it at any price as price is not "our problem" as such. Unfortunately to try to cover losses the Toll have put prices too high to get any other customers so they are stuck will fleecing us the same minority.

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