Yesterday, Ukip launched its national campaign against road tolling. We targeted just five tolls, on the Dartford, Tyne and Mersey crossings, the M6 toll motorway and the London Congestion Charge. Between them, at a conservative estimate they pull in over £0.5billion in tolls every year. That's half a billion which is coming straight out of the local economy, and more to the point, straight out of the pockets of motorists and hauliers who are already amongst the most heavily taxed drivers in the world. As one of my colleagues said earlier today, at least Dick Turpin wore a mask.
I live on Merseyside, and here, if you have to use the Mersey Tunnels daily to get to work, it will, after the latest price increases cost you £16 per week. If you're a care assistant, a shop worker or anyone else who earns the minimum wage or close to it, that means that you are working almost three hours every week just to pay to travel through a tunnel you already own as a taxpayer.
Research by the Federation of Small Business indicated that a removal of road tolls nationally would boost local economies significantly, and this has been proved in Scotland, where road tolls have been removed and local businesses have seen a significant boost. At a time of deep recession, we should be doing all we can to integrate tolled roads into the main road network - which is already paid for by car tax and fuel duty - and remove this millstone from around our necks.
There is an environmental aspect too. Miles of stationary traffic queuing for toll booths means the areas around most tolls suffer extremely poor air quality, with high levels of particulate and nitrogen dioxide pollution. At a time when we are told we have the 'greenest government ever' -and which also pledged to 'stop the war on motorists' - we are seeing toll charges increase, more toll roads being proposed, and a blind eye being turned to the environmental damage they cause. The London Congestion Charge, initially welcomed by environmental campaigners, has caused average traffic speeds to fall to levels last seen in the days of horse drawn transport over a century ago, while congestion and pollution levels have increased.
The government's apologist for all this, roads minister Stephen Hammond, today said, "The Government is completely clear that tolls will not be introduced on existing road capacity... without the use of tolls some critical pieces of national infrastructure would be unaffordable. This pledge from Ukip can therefore only mean one of two things: either they would abandon vital investment in our roads or they would saddle the nation with more debt. For it to be taken seriously as a policy proposal they need to explain which one."
A fair question perhaps, and one which deserves an answer. We would point at the roaring success of the M6 Toll Motorway, which opened with much fanfare and which last year posted a £40million loss because canny Brummies refuse to use it. The government is now spending more than the £900million the toll road cost to increase capacity on the old M6, which will not be tolled, but which will absorb more traffic from the toll road, making it even less profitable. At the other end of the spectrum is the Tyne Tunnel, built at a cost of £139million under a 30 year PFI scheme which will net the French Bouygues Group who operate it well over £600million at today's prices. This is hardly a bargain for the taxpayer. And then we have the Dartford and Mersey crossings, which were supposed to have the tolls removed when they were paid for. Of course, once the government has its hands in motorists pockets, it is not so easy to get them out, and despite Dartford being not only paid for but accruing a fund to cover maintenance in perpetuity, the promise was ignored and the tolls continue.
Ukip's answer to Mr Hammond's question is this: motorists pay more than enough already to use the road network, and we have heard all your promises before. In 2009, the government raised £5.63billion in road tax, and yet cannot afford £139million for a tunnel under the Tyne. What are you doing with our money? The M6 Toll has proved that, in the long run, it is cheaper to build it ourselves than it is to contract it out, and one way or another, it is the general public who pays, either directly as motorists, or through the higher prices for goods that tolls invariably cause. Your model is broken, Mr Hammond, and unfortunately nobody in government seems to have the slightest idea how to mend it.
The boost to the national economy caused by a removal of tolls is just what the country needs, but I doubt that government will see it as they are - Labour, Tory and Lib Dems alike - committed to a dogmatic approach which ignores the failures of the past to rake in stealth taxes in the future. We used to hang those who committed highway robbery, but now we just give them a PFI contract.