/ Travel & Leisure

Should motorists ‘pay per mile’ to fund Britain’s roads?

In a somewhat controversial move, congestion charges were introduced to London in 2003. And now, in the midst of an economic crisis, it seems that these ideas might find themselves on roads outside the capital.

Last week, George Osborne’s Autumn Statement suggested that toll roads would become more common as a means of funding large infrastructure projects. The RAC has also argued that ‘road pricing is inevitable’.

So, is charging motorists for each mile they drive the way to ensure our roads are kept up to scratch? If drivers had to pay every time they took to the wheel, maybe they’d think twice about using their car for unnecessary journeys and would opt to car share or use public transport instead?

Road tax doesn’t exist

Congestion charging is never going to be popular with the public – Manchester voted against it and Boris Johnson bet that he’d improve his ratings if he scrapped the Western Extension of London’s congestion charge.

Drivers may also cry in protest about the ‘war on the motorist’, claiming that they already pay for the roads through ‘road tax’. Road tax, of course, doesn’t exist. Roads are paid for through general taxation.

Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), which is commonly mistaken for road tax, is based on how much pollution your car pumps out, meaning electric vehicles don’t have to pay it. And VED isn’t necessarily spent on the roads – it just goes into the general pot, much like VAT.

Pros and cons to road charging

Still, funding Britain’s roads through congestion charges and toll roads would be another payment that already stretched drivers would have to cough up. That is unless we take up the RAC’s idea of dropping the cost of fuel duty. If this were the case, perhaps motorists would prefer to know that their money was actually being spent on the roads?

Non-drivers might be happy about moving the cost of maintaining the roads to motorists, but this cost could still be passed onto them in different ways, such as through increased shopping delivery costs.

Road charging may also disproportionately affect some groups, such as plumbers, electricians and other professions that need to use cars as part of their job.

Where and when should roads charge?

It’s unlikely that all roads will be charged – it will probably be limited to very busy roads or those in cities. Building a system to charge motorists on rural Welsh B-roads would be unlikely to make its money back, for example.

The system might also take a lesson from our railways by only charging at peak times, such as during the morning rush hour. That in itself might go a long way to speeding up your commute.

So what do you think – is road charging a more efficient way to fund our roads and drive down carbon emissions? Or is it just another way for the government to extract even more from hard-pressed motorists?


Goodness knows how much this would cost to administer. I suggest that we keep the present system of vehicle excise duty and fuel tax.

In theory I would support such a system – “pay per mile”. It does seem to offer a way to reduce traffic especially at peak times while not penalising those living in rural areas with no other means of transport.
In practice I cannot see how it would work efficiently and without causing drivers to use minor roads to avoid charges.
However insurance companies are playing with a similar system to assess car insurance costs mainly for young drivers so maybe there is an efficient way.

As you said congestion charge schemes are never going to be popular and using a referendum to decide is always going to result in a NO vote !

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 December 2011

An example of pay-per-mile is some (some are toll-free) of France’s motorways and their tolls. Some people avoid motorways so as not to pay toll money, but they are very few and far between. Most people prefer to enjoy the comfort of a good, usually safer road that’s going to get them where they want to go more quickly. Why not do the same here? That would be a start.

Edinburgh Council had a referendum about congestion charges a while ago and of course the answer was like rarrar’s resounding NO. I remember thinking that we’d pay for this selfish answer sooner or later and I can’t help thinking that the tram fiasco we’re having to suffer from now is partly related to it: if a congestion charge had been introduced, would the council have been so utterly hasty and incompetent beyond belief when “managing” the tram project? There is a possibility that they would have instead taken their time and at least waited until they had some income from the congestion charge, as was the idea, before railroading this pitiful tram project through.

We already have it, it’s called fuel duty…..

The problem with fuel duty is that as more cars become electric/hybrid the less money the government will get. We will come to a point where there will be so many efficient cars on the road that there won’t be enough money to fund them, meaning there money will have to come from somewhere else. And is taking cash out of general taxation the fair thing to do (I don’t drive, I only use public transport for example)?

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 December 2011

The problem with wondering if taking cash out of general taxation is the fair thing to do is illustrated by this question: education is funded by general taxation, but I don’t have any kids, so why should I pay for it? I think the answer is succinctly that as a society we ultimately all benefit, financially or otherwise, even if it sometimes may not feel that way, from lots of services that we don’t necessary use directly. I may be wrong, but that is probably generally the reason why their funding comes out of general taxation. I woudn’t argue that the system is perfect, however…

Yes and to add to those statements I would also raise the point of increasing the motorway speed. Basically petrol is just so expensive that people aren’t buying as much of it and so the government has to find a way of maintaining the income from it.

I honestly don’t think that more cars will become hybrid because its more expensive, less environmentally friendly to produce and frankly means that you don’t care how a car looks, lasts or drives.

The government needs to maintain the status quo, there are much better ways to increase revenue than just to keep on taxing the motorist, but they will never think beyond what all the major multi-nationals can provide as they are their bed-fellows.

Jampit says:
16 December 2011

I agree! The greater the distance, the more fuel (tax) you use.

Dean commented: “We already have it, it’s called fuel duty…..” and he is spot on.
Patrick Steen replied: “The problem with fuel duty is that as more cars become electric/hybrid the less money the government will get”
Well Patrick it will be a very long time before electric/hybrid cars make any impact upon fuel duty revenue. Probably longer than I or even you will be around. The biggest impact on fuel duty revenue is lower consumption because the Government is taxing everyone bar the rich off the road.
I would further suggest that looking at “other ways” to extract ever more money from those of us who have no choice but to use a car to get around can only achieve limited success. People will simply not pay by voting not to do or buy whatever is designed to provide that revenue. Result no extra revenue.
Also when they’ve taken all my small amount of money from me where do they expect me to find more?
Bit of a re-think needed I would suggest.

I think the way they do this in Singapore is genius.

There’s congestion charging throughout the city on different roads, and you’re constantly driving through them. Each car has a ‘box’ sensor with a top-up card slotted into it – whenever you go onto a congestion charging road, a sensor on the road will automatically charge your card. No hassle.

The same system is also used in the car parks, meaning you’re charged per the actual amount of time you’ve spent in the car park, and not having to go and get a ticket for a set 3 hours, or full day, when often you won’t be in the car park for that long.

This sounds like an excellent way of dealing with congestion, but I wonder how much it would cost to implement and what would happen about existing vehicles.

Pay on exit car parks work fine and there is no reason why pre-paid parking cannot be eliminated, at least for off-street parking. That could be done long before we could implement the system you have suggested.

Congestion charging on its own is not the answer nor is it the most efficient way of generating revenue. Fuel duty is the simplest and most cost effective method of revenue generation, and penalises both fuel-inefficient vehicles and those who burn more fuel through being stuck in rush hour traffic.

However, given that traffic levels continue to rise in spite of the huge increases in fuel costs over the years, it should be obvious to anyone that you cannot tax people off the roads without offering an alternative. Massive investment in public transport is called for as well as new and innovative road technologies.

Unfortunately no politicians (of all political persuasions) seems to be interested in taking a long term view and committing to investment which might not show a return in the lifetime of their term in office.

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 December 2011


I sometimes wonder what hope we have if companies such as the Royal Mail are allowed to stop transporting post by rail and clog up our roads instead. How uncommensurably short-sighted was that?

Although the discussion is labelled ” …. to FUND Britain’s roads” the different methods discussed are designed to affect the way people travel ( or dont travel) as well as raise money.
Congestion charges reduce traffic in specific areas at specific times; toll charges pay for new roads; fuel duty persuades people to reduce fuel consumption by using other means of transport , driving slower, living nearer work or amenities or buying a more efficient car; VED attempts to persuade people to buy more efficient vehicles.

They are all interlinked with public transport and social policies and should not be considered or introduced in isolation.

Just a few thoughts ……
The current system of fuel duty means that all road users pay in proportion to their fuel usage. Smaller cars driven at off-peak times pay less. Big cars driven on congested peak hour roads pay more. Seems fair to me – except that bigger cars driven in peak hours are often fully funded by the company so the user won’t care either way!
The money raised from the various taxes on motorists FAR EXCEED the amount re-invested in the transport infrastructure so I have no faith in any future government using the income from road-pricing to pay for better roads. It will just disappear.
Local schemes such as the London congestion charge zone work because they are simple, cost effective and everyone understands what they will pay. I have followed the debate on a national scheme and no-one has yet explained how motorists will know how much they will have to pay in advance of making the journey. If individual stretches of road are “premium priced” at “peak times” how will I know BEFORE I start my journey what it will cost. Would you agree to pay for something without knowing the cost? I wouldn’t! If all I get is a monthly charge to my bank account how will I know which journeys I need to avoid in order to save money?
What we need is major capital investment in the whole of our transport infrastructure and a more flexible approach to working hours.

It would seem that someone in the goverment has a grudge aganist motorists and are trying to get all vehicle off the road. If this was to happen where would they get the tax that would be lost. they are cousing unemployment losing tax, stoping smoking, putting up drink. I think this goverment has got a lot of thinking to do,I think it has lose its way.

Brian says:
16 December 2011

I believe the French have just the right idea. Toll roads for major journeys but not usually near and in major conurbations. The toll roads are kept in excellent order with garages/eateries or rests every so many kilometres, I think it is 15. The old N roads are still there for people not wishing to pay the tolls or not in a hurry. Another good idea from the French that we should have taken years ago is to have a slower speed limit on motorways in rain. It would cost no more to enforce, just entail some new signs and should prevent heavy lorries obliterating the view with 60 miles per hour speeds in waterlogged roads.

Toll roads ( and high speed train lines) are much more effective and easier to build in countries with low population densities – the UK is far more heavily populated than France and most other EU countries.

Agree with Brian and rrar’s commenst. PLUS, the autoroute ticket automatically gives average speed of the journey between entry/exit, and the police vehicles lurking at the exit points then go into action; good, except if there has been a stop in between! In general, I disagree with tolls for the reasons already stated by many in that fuel duty is there. Not mentioned is that the French no longer tax cars, but you have to display a valid rectangular insurance certificate in place of our VED. How good would that be? I feel that we should follow suite – it would solve a number of problems!

It might be worth considering the system adopted in Guernsey a few years ago. Their VED was discontinued and a few pence added to the cost of fuel. This would have the following benefits:-
* Costs are related to usage and efficiency.
* All drivers pay including lorries from abroad and those who “forget” to tax their vehicle.
* There would be no new administrative costs
* Administrative cost could be reduced by no longer needing the costs of producing VED disks etc and maintaining the associated records.
Note the cost of fuel in Guernsey is still much lower than UK.

I agree with MJ why should Retired people have to sell there Cars because they cannot no longer afford
high fuel TAX high road Tax. Persons doing 2K or 3K should not pay as much as someone driving 40K or 50K also the goverment has to find an answer to all Foreign Lorries;Buses;Cars using our roads scot FREE..