14 February 2007

A small boring detail

Very much on the back foot of late, transport secretary Douglas Alexander is pledging to "listen, deliberate and discuss" the issues raised by the petition on the No. 10 website urging Tony Blair to "forget about road pricing".

Standing at 1,369,970 signatures (at the time of writing), with seven days to go, the petition has proved a huge embarrassment for the government, which is having one of its main policy ideas on transport – in fact, virtually its only idea – comprehensively trashed.

The oddest thing, however, is that despite Alexander's apparent enthusiasm for a debate, ever since he announced that he intended to make satellite-based road pricing his "personal priority", in May last year, there has been almost complete silence from him on the subject. And this is despite his self professed determination to move the debate from "why" to "how".

Given how important the policy is to the government, one must look to reasons why Alexander has failed to follow through, and these are clearly evident. Essentially, the problems arise from the Department for Transport had nailing its colours to the satellite system mast, and its decision to rely on the EU's Galileo system.

Since Galileo is late, and the technical parameters for charging systems have yet to be defined, the secretary of state is not in a position to spell out exactly how the system will work.

More importantly, not only is the system is vastly over budget, the fundamental basis of the commercial model is falling apart, in a variety of ways.

And. to add even further to the EU's woes, earlier this month, the Chinese launched one of its Beidou navigation satellites onboard a Long March 3A rocket, using this moment to declare publicly that they intend to launch a full system of 35 orbiting satellites that will be as comprehensive as the Navstar system built by the United States,

On top of a resurgent Russian Glonass, suddenly this means that the sky is going to be rather crowded with competitors, yet it is only Galielo which is relying on charging for use of its signals, all the other systems being free to the end user.

That itself creates further problems, not least the fact that it is unlikely that the EU will be able to control access to satellite signals, after the codes were cracked last year.

Add to that the availability of increasingly sophisticated receivers which are capable of integrating signals from multiple systems, providing a level of accuracy which cannot be provided by one system, and the original planning assumptions on which the original Galileo operation was based are no longer valid.

All of this totally undermines the costings for Galileo. Thus, any national authority like the British government, seeking to develop a national road charging system, will have no basis on which to calculate its charges. Any system is set to stall before it even begins to get off the ground, even supposing the Galileo system does, which is looking increasingly unlikely.

But, if the technical and operational problems at a European level are multiplying, there are also home-grown factors. Firstly, the government has totally failed to get to grips with the problem of unregistered cars and, with 33 million now registered, an estimated additional two million are absent from the DVLA database. That puts potentially two million drivers beyond the charging system, creating a massive "free rider" problem and a source of continual complaint from those drivers who do have to pay.

Secondly, there is the administration of the system itself, which will require a massive computer system, larger than anything that has ever been attempted anywhere in the world. On the day that experts are warning that the government’s £20 billion NHS computer system is on the brink of failure – in the context of the government's record of implementing computer schemes being littered with failure – the chances of a successful system being devised to manage road charging are vanishingly small.

Finally, disturbing information is emerging on the flagship London congestion charging scheme which is proving so expensive to administer, at £120 million a year, that it relies not on the basic charges to break even but on the penalty charges levied on non-payers. These account for an estimated third of the total £187 million income.

A satellite-based system might have a lower default rate, as the charging scheme is largely automatic, which means that the administrators will not be able to rely so much on penalty income, which – in a UK scenario – would reflect on higher road charges.

So much for the technical and financial problems – but these are by no means the whole extent of the problems facing Mr Alexander. As people come to grips with the technology of satellite road charging, there is also greater awareness of the civil liberty implications, which are highly significant, and increasing. This was one of the central objections to the system, cited by the submitter of the anti-charging petition, Peter Roberts, who declared: "the idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong."

Thus does David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, say that he has strong civil liberties concerns about the plans. "There are very real concerns that the road pricing model that the Government is looking at will allow routine surveillance of every citizen in the country ... Clearly that is not acceptable," he declared.

This was to the Independent newspaper which yesterday devoted its front page and its lead story to the issue of road charging. Headed, "the road to nowhere", it asked whether minister would back away from plans to clear the roads. Douglas Alexander was under pressure not to give way to the "populist" campaign backed by the motoring lobby and a number of national newspapers.

According to The Times, he has promised that privacy would not be invaded, perhaps unaware that the very basis of the scheme is that a record is kept of every journey made.

And, if Alexander wants to tell us that the information will be ring fenced and not released to government agencies, that is a promise he can't keep. Remember the controversy about the EU law requiring telephone and e-mail records to be kept? All it would take is for the EU member states to gang up and demand the availability of road charging records and that would be that. Once again, the EU casts a long shadow.

To then complete a long tale of woe, even Labour politicians are warning that this could be the government's "poll tax on wheels" – dubbed the "toll tax".

The idea of congestion charging, obviously, is to drive large numbers of people off the roads at certain times, and on to public transport. But what is not generally appreciated though is that public transport only takes nine percent of traffic. The rest go by private car. There simply is not the capacity to take much of the private traffic and, without a public transport alternative, people will have to grimace and pay up. Under those circumstances, according to John Spellar, a former Labour transport minister, road charging becomes a "tax on work", hitting the lowest-paid hardest.

And there we have it. Alexander is between a rock and a hard place – a good place to be for a former Europe minister. "In our country," he says, "we don't have the luxury of doing nothing if we are not to see American-style gridlock on our roads." But doing something does not have to include road charging. Spellar, for one, distrusts the big schemes so loved by politicians and officials. He argues that the way forwards is to look to the "small boring details", the cumulative effects of a myriad of small, targeted schemes.

There is though, another "small boring detail". The EU's ambitions for its Galileo satellite programme require that money is recouped through such things as road charging. Without that, member states will have to meet the multi-billion annual running costs from their own resources. The EU, therefore, needs road charging.

And that, in the final analysis, may be the deciding factor. When "Europe" calls, our politicians tend to drop everything and come running. Peter Roberts may have set up his petition in vain.