Road user charging is an inevitability and needs to be seen as a huge opportunity to manage demand, ICE president Sir John Armitt has told government.
Speaking at the launch of the ICE-led National Needs Assessment, Armitt insisted that government needs to find new ways to fund road infrastructure and said that, to him, road pricing is becoming “inevitable”.
Armitt explained that the move towards more efficient and electric vehicles means tax raised from fuel is in irreversible decline and that some form of road pricing now has to be considered. But he stressed that such a move, while on face value unpopular, would offer enormous opportunities.
“It is a tremendous opportunity to demand manage,” he said. “Technology means you can incentivise people to travel at different times, to the nearest minute even, as is done on the coach network and rail network.”
Chief secretary to the Treasury David Gauke, responding to Armitt’s challenge, said he would welcome “debate” on the issue but was muted on whether road pricing could become a reality.
“I think it’s a little way away,” he said.
“There has always been understandable scepticism in the public about road pricing,” he observed. “If road pricing is becoming a larger part of our system there needs to be a case made that it is in the motorists’ favour and a wider debate on how technology could be used to bring around public opinion.”
Sir John Armitt
The call for road pricing is one of the recommendations in the National Needs Assessment, a 15-month ICE-led study into the UK’s infrastructure needs to 2050. The assessment is intended to feed into the National Infrastructure Commission’s own Infrastructure Assessment, which it will publish next summer.
The Needs Assessment concludes that while much new infrastructure is needed – particularly additional runway capacity in the south east, new nuclear at Hinkley Point and elsewhere, and the full High Speed 2 network – it will not be possible to build new to meet demand.
“The greatest opportunities are through demand management and technology,” said Armitt. “The solution is not always to build more.”
“Transport systems are under relentless pressure from rising demand,” the report observes. “Strategic investment in new capacity is required on the busiest parts of the highway network. This must be combined with steps to manage the use of road space more efficiently through the use of demand management and support for the uptake of driverless vehicles.”
“Without these interventions the benefits of new capacity will be rapidly drowned out by increased demand,” says the report.
As a recommendation, it adds: “The government should establish and implement new ways of funding road infrastructure. This should include consideration of a road pricing system. Any such system must enable users to understand their road use and make informed choices about their travel patterns.”
The Needs Assessment also called for major housing developments to be considered by the National Infrastructure Commission as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects to ensure that infrastructure needs are catered for in unison with the development itself.
Armitt said: “You cannot think about housing needs without thinking about infrastructure. They are inextricably linked.”
But Gauke was cool on that idea: “There is a debate to be had on housing,” he said. “It is a particularly controversial area and there is a degree of caution around making major schemes Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.”
Gauke added that there were concerns that adding housing to the National Infrastructure Commission’s remit would risk “watering down what it has to do”.
Road pricing inevitable, ICE president tells government