Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Could changing the way we tax driving help us achieve net zero?

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in LGiU on 14 September 2021.

The Scottish Government wants to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2045. Travel by private car has a huge role to play in realising that goal as demonstrated by the recent Programme for Government which has a target of reducing car use by 20 per cent by 2030. In addition, both Scottish and UK Governments have set out targets to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. However, Reform Scotland believes that in order to meet net zero we also need to consider changing the way we tax motorists.

In a country as diverse geographically as Scotland, taxing someone simply because they are driving a car is unfair. It doesn’t reflect the ability of that individual to choose another easily available mode of transport and takes no account of the congestion they are causing.

In contrast, Road pricing schemes are intended to link drivers’ choices with the actual costs they impose on the transport system. Pricing can better match the demands of road users with the available capacity or ‘supply’ of road space. This can encourage people to use roads more efficiently, by taking alternative modes of transport, consolidating trips, or travelling during less busy times of the day.

Singapore has been using an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme since 1998. The scheme can charge different prices for the use of different roads and at different times of the day. Cars have an in-vehicle unit with a smart card and when a card passes through one of 93 ERP gantries the system automatically deducts the fee. Reform Scotland believes that we should consider replacing Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and Fuel Duty with a similar pay-as-you-drive scheme in Scotland.

All of Scotland’s roads would be covered by road pricing, but the cost of using each road would depend on a number of factors including the time of day and congestion levels. As a result, many quieter roads, particularly in rural areas, would have no charge at all.  Local authorities and partners could work with Transport Scotland to consider the charging levels appropriate for the circumstances in their areas, so the scheme would have both local and national elements.

VED and Fuel Duty are reserved to Westminster and the UK Government also has its own net zero targets, so there is an opportunity for both governments to work together to pilot schemes in Scotland.

Prior to the introduction of road pricing in Singapore, the Government tested prototype systems and gathered feedback to help develop the final policy. Similar work could be trialled in Scotland. Different schemes with a spread of pilot projects across the county could help indicate the impact on different areas as well as the impact on driver behaviour.

The UK Government previously looked at road pricing in 2004 but concluded that low-cost mass-market technology would not be available until 2014. Technology has improved considerably since then and the amount of road traffic continues to increase. We now have an opportunity to re-examine how we pay for road space and how best to adopt new policies which are fairer and contribute to reaching net zero goals.