LOCAL AUTHORITIES will be given the power to toll busy A-roads under radical plans unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott this week.
The Government's long awaited integrated transport White Paper, 'A new deal for transport: better for everyone' promises councils new legislation to raise up to £1bn a year of ring-fenced money for transport schemes.
The move could force drivers to pay tolls to use more than 50 heavily trafficked A-roads in the UK by the first half of 2001. These roads include the A65 west of Leeds, the A10 between Cambridge and London and the A6 between Derby and Manchester.
The White Paper says that the roads, considered 'mainly to serve local and regional traffic', would be de-trunked and handed back to local authorities. Road user charging schemes would then be developed 'to help meet transport and environmental objectives in urban or rural areas, or on bottlenecks on specific roads or at certain times of the day or year.'
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions confirmed: 'Once local authorities have responsibility for the de-trunked roads, if they think that a road user charge is appropriate then they will have the power to apply it once legislation is in place.'
As widely predicted, the White Paper also included plans to allow local authorities to charge motorists for access to city centres and impose levies on workplace parking. City centre charges are likely to be pitched at around £5, with workplace parking levies set at between £150 and £1000 a year, depending on the area.
Local Government Association head of planning and transport policy Andy Elmer described the new powers as 'absolutely fantastic.'
'The sort of money that will start to flow from these charges will be significant enough to make big transport changes - we're designing a future here,' he said.
The Government has asked the LGA to select around half a dozen test sites over the summer, although it is still unclear whether pilot schemes would use virtual or real money.
Speaking on Monday after the publication of the White Paper, Prescott said that none of the proposals could start before specific legislation is introduced. Given the crowded parliamentary timetable, observers believe the new laws are unlikely to be brought in until early 2001.
The extra revenue streams, which Prescott said would be 'defined by local needs' and 'reinvested in local transport', could raise up to £200M a year for central London boroughs and between £30M and £50M for provincial cities.
The bulk of the money is likely to be spent on 'soft' engineering solutions such as bus priority lanes, cycle paths, traffic calming measures and planning gains to encourage development close to transport links.
The White Paper also shows a clear steer away from favouring light rail schemes. Future funding for major light rail 'will not be a priority' and schemes will only be supported 'if they represent good value for money and form an integral and necessary part of a strategy,' it says.
'I am not an absolute fan of light rail systems that cost £200M - you can buy an awful lot of buses for that,' said Prescott.