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

Pay-as-you-go driving can be introduced now

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Sunday Times on 4 April 2021.

The way we charge drivers is bad for the environment, promotes congestion and is unfair on low-mileage motorists and those in more remote areas or with poor access to public transport.

Reform Scotland believes that we need to look at replacing vehicle excise duty and fuel duty with a pay-as-you drive road pricing scheme and that the UK and Scottish governments should work together to develop pilot schemes in Scotland.

Both are committed to phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. This means fuel duty is living on borrowed time, while vehicle excise duty punishes those who drive infrequently.

Singapore has been using an electronic road pricing (ERP) scheme since 1998. It can charge different prices for the use of different roads and at different times of the days. Cars have an in-vehicle unit with a smart card and when they pass under one of 93 ERP gantries the system deducts the fee.

Prior to the scheme’s introduction, the government tested prototype systems and gathered feedback to help develop the final policy. Similar work could and should be trialled 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. This means that many quieter roads, particularly in rural areas, would have no charge at all. Local authorities could work with Transport Scotland to consider the charging levels appropriate for the circumstances in their areas.

Piloting different schemes would require a spread of volunteers across the county. This would help indicate the impact on different areas as well as the behavioural changes. Road pricing needs to be a replacement for existing taxes, not in addition, so it would be necessary for volunteers to receive a rebate from the UK government for their vehicle excise duty and fuel tax.

In 2004 the Department for Transport looked at road pricing but concluded 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 can’t wait any longer to start seriously considering how we pay for road space in the future.