Governments have been striving for 20 years to create markets where none can sensibly exist - in the provision of education and health, for example. But they have scarcely looked at roads, where the arguments for charging for the use of a scarce commodity - and one that imposes costs on others, in the form of pollution, noise, danger and congestion - are overwhelming. The objection has always been - as it is to Ken Livingstone's plans for congestion charging in London (see A C Grayling, page 14) - that to impose tolls on some roads will simply divert traffic to others. This has not, as it happens, prevented the French from making extensive use of road tolls, with great benefit to their national exchequer. But we are now within reach of the technology that would overcome such difficulties by allowing a nationwide system of road charging and creating just about as pure a market as the most Friedmanite liberal could wish for.
Proposals for such a scheme are set out in a report from the Commission for Integrated Transport, published on 25 February: satellites would track vehicles through an electronic meter fixed to the dashboard, allowing drivers to be charged by the mile for the road space they use. Bills would be sent out monthly or quarterly, as for electricity or telephone use. Debate on this subject, not arguments about what one minor official e-mailed to another, should be preoccupying Stephen Byers and his department. Instead, the commission's report was relegated to the inside pages of the papers, rubbished under such soundbites as "another stealth tax" and "spy in the sky", and greeted with almost total silence from ministers.
The first point to grasp about the commission's proposals is that they are fiscally neutral. Collectively, motorists need pay no more than they do now: road charges would be offset by reductions in vehicle excise duty (which could well be abolished) and in fuel duty. The charges themselves would be varied to reflect the demand on road space and the costs, in congestion and pollution, imposed on other people. Travel at peak times, such as weekday rush hours, would cost more than travel at weekends and holidays. Travel on motorways and main commuter routes would cost more than journeys round quiet country lanes. On days when air quality is poor, motorists would pay premium charges. Bigger and more polluting vehicles could attract higher charges.
The commission's model suggests that 63 per cent of vehicle miles travelled would still be free (except for fuel costs, which would be lower than now). But if motorists and lorry drivers flooded minor roads to escape the costs of main roads, then charges could be imposed on them, too. The merit of road pricing is that, given the right technology, it can be a perfectly tuned instrument to match demand and supply, while also taking account of external costs. It can provide data for decisions on road building, with investment depending on hard economic calculations about whether the cost can be recouped from charges rather than on some arbitrary bureaucratic model. The electronic meters could display details of road charges, likely journey times and alternative routes before drivers set out. Thus the consumer would have complete freedom of choice and near-perfect information, creating a near-perfect market.
Road pricing will penalise the poor, it will be argued (largely by politicians and journalists who don't usually give a fig for the poor). But most of the very poor do not own cars and those that do use them far less than average. And road pricing will have fewer undesirable side effects than higher fuel taxes, since rural motorists will pay little and pensioners will be able to take advantage (as they already do on public transport) of the lower costs outside peak hours. The only substantial objection on social justice grounds is that the poor tend to have less choice than the rich about the time they start work; they could end up paying through the nose for essential journeys. This is why the commission stipulates that there should be adequate public transport alternatives before road pricing is introduced. Once these are in place, the gains in choice and economic efficiency would be enormous: buses could keep to timetables, lorries could deliver goods on schedule, the sheer waste of congestion would be cut hugely (by 44 per cent, the commission calculates). People could make balanced choices between private cars and public transport; at present, once the overheads are paid, the costs of driving a car up and down the M1 are marginal and, compared with taking a train, quite insignificant.
Constant surveillance of car journeys will be denounced as an infringement of civil liberties. But records of telephone calls can as easily be misused as records of car travel; and those who really want or need to cover their tracks can always take the bus. The other accusation levelled at the scheme will be that it is anti-motorist. This is nonsensical. As the commission's report observes, the only truly anti-motorist policy is to let congestion grow and spread.
Leaks, lovers and e-mails
The Jo Moore/Martin Sixsmith affair has exposed a lacuna in the rules of social and professional behaviour. Nobody has worked out the precise status of an e-mail. In most offices (perhaps less so in Whitehall), the e-mail has replaced the memo. So is it covered by the Official Secrets Act? The e-mail has also largely replaced the love letter. So is it as bad form to intercept and publish e-mails between lovers (which happens in many offices) as to intercept and publish their letters? The future implications need urgent attention. Experts say that anything ever displayed on a computer, even if deleted, remains on the hard disk. Should rejected lovers, therefore, dramatically burn computers as they once burned letters? Will biographers one day hunt up and down the country for old hard disks as they now hunt for letters and diaries? What does this mean for archives and libraries? Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith, with their first-hand experience, should sit on a royal commission to consider these matters.