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8th June 1979, Page 79
8th June 1979
Page 79
Page 79, 8th June 1979 — O P IC
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

The road user always pays

Any profit from simplifying the system will go to the Government 9

"RANSPORT in Britain provides very opportunity for the iovernment to adopt a double tandpoint on money matters.

n addition to the complications 'rising from a mixture of State nd independent ownership, here is ample scope to take Avantage of the inevitable conusion when one form of transiort has its own infrastructure Ind the other makes use of the rublic highway.

When it suits them, Ministers an argue that the proper price lust be paid for whatever is irovided. At other times they re merely concerned to raise coney or to protect their State 'vestment against loss. Such a ontradictory approach, [though the victims have beome conditioned to accept it, iroduces some strange effects.

In the ordinary world, it irould be assumed that the bolition or phasing out of the ehicle excise duty would amove the obligation on the lotorist to pay at least that part f the money formerly spent on dministration. What will cer)inly happen is that he will still ay as much as previously — or ery likely a little bit more — but ) some other way. Any profit om simplifying the system will o to the Government.

This sleight of hand may not e appropriate with the heavier oods vehicles, where the rate

f tax varies The policy here is. ) boldly increase the rate, esecially at the higher end of the cale, The justification concen-ates on the desirability of "eking the "'juggernaut" pay s proper share of the cost of the mds.

The argument — which chaIcteristically is never put to the lotorist when his own tax goes

p — depends upon an accurate ssessment of the cost and of (hat the share of any particular (pe of vehicle ought to be. On le first point, the Government ften seems to have difficulty in dding up its own national and

local road expenditure. Conf ustion is compounded when it comes to a division of the total among road users.

Although the railways may be able to claim that they pay for their permanent way — with a little surreptitious help from the Government — they do at least enjoy exclusive use of it. With a few exceptions, notably motorways, the roads belong to everybody. It could be claimed that some of their provision and maintenance should be financed from general taxation.

It is more frequently and ingeniously argued, on the other hand, that the road system occupies valuable land for which substantial interest charges ought to be levied, especially on those people (mainly assumed to be the owners of heavy lorries) who use that land for their own commercial gain.

Only eccentrics take this argument at its full value, but it provides favourable background noise for the more plausible contention that, whatever the true cost of the roads, the operator of the heavier lorries is contributing less than he should towards meeting it. There is a wonderful formula, involving the fourth power, which can be manipulated to put the haulier in debt to the community whatever the other factors in the equation.

Although the Ministry of Transport is more moderate in its calculations, it has accepted the basic formula, For lack of convincing contrary evidence, road and road transport interests have had to follow suit. The sceptics are on their own.

To the anti-road lobby, the formula is a gift which it is entitled to use to the full. The general public welcomes it all the more readily if it can be made an instrument for increasing the heavy vehicle tax. To most people the tax is like North Sea oil, a bonus from kindly Nature, providing revenue for which they do not have to pay. They find it hard to realise that in the end it comes out of their pockets.

An increase in petrol tax puts up the cost of living in a way they can more easily and immediately understand. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may have special reasons for making scarce fuel more expensive, but he does not have to be told which methods of getting more money from road users are less unpopular. Perhaps it is part of the mocratic process that he we still try to draw up a bale sheet showing that an extra on one category of road was deserved. Or it may b habit that Ministers concen with transport cannot shake

They are reluctant to ad that the proper cost of the roE and its proper distribut among users, depends upon many unknown quantities make possible a generi acceptable assessment. 7 same statistical blank wall fe rates any attempt to decide, example, how much money railways are losing each yr The unlikelihood of success not prevented any number committees, working pan1 and study groups from um taking the task.

Many such inquiries are lowed by what is usually calk reorganisation of railv finances. This invariably me that the railways are relieve( roost of their debts and give more or less ffesh start. Inst of the taxpayer paying the under one heading, he pay under another. The mone) fairy money, like that which motorist imagines he might saving from abolition of the tax.

As a nationalised und taking, the National Frei' Corporation cannot escape same sort of treatment. lt p up some resistance, as its la' annual report shows. While knowledging the benefit of financial relief given by 1978 Transport Act, the Is maintains that-the Act did nal as far as it would have wishe

But it would oppose any s gestion that the concessions it on the same level as ot State-owned bodies. The N does not have the ne monopoly powers of other p lie industries, says the repor is part of a very competil industry. It has to take acco of commercial consideration:


Organisations: Ministry of Transport

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