HC Deb 10 June 1996 vol 279 cc6-8
4. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received urging the introduction of road tolls at the entrance to cities. [30604]

Mr. Norris

In response to representations from the local authority associations, we set out in the transport Green Paper our intention to discuss with them the case for taking the legislative powers necessary to enable interested local authorities to implement experimental charging schemes.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will my hon. Friend make it clear that he does not intend to introduce road tolls into London? My constituents in Sutton and Cheam would be alarmed if their freedom of movement were hindered. Road tolling would penalise the elderly, the infirm, the disabled and those less able to pay. In short, it would be a tremendously unfair city tax.

Mr. Norris

There is currently no technology available that would allow such a system to be introduced, whether it was required or not, and I doubt whether such technology will be available for at least 10 years. More importantly, while recognising the various academic arguments in favour of charging systems, the Government have been alive to precisely the issues that my hon. Friend raises. Huge social and economic issues are raised by urban congestion pricing, not least its impact on marginal car users—those people who need a car to access a job, whatever the quality of public transport. It would be a tragedy if a result of such a policy were to put those people out of their jobs. It is interesting that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have bought the urban congestion charging proposition uncritically and are intent on introducing it in London and elsewhere. The Government are rightly more sanguine and cautious.

Mr. Dalyell

Before anyone says anything more about road tolls, will they come to my constituency between 7 am and 9 am and between 4 pm and 6 pm to see tolls in operation on the Forth road bridge? These are, in effect, tolls for entering the city of Edinburgh, and congestion is caused to the extent that people are talking about a second bridge, although that is completely unnecessary. If these tolls—for a bridge that has been paid for—were done away with, congestion would be much alleviated.

Mr. Norris

The congestion is not caused by the tolls, but by the fact that people have to stop before they cross the Forth road bridge and pay the toll at a toll gate. Modern tolling systems abolish the need for toll gates, as the tolling is done automatically by reference to a smart card in the vehicle. Such a system is up and running and available to regular motorists in Dartford. One of the propositions at the forefront of the technology trials on tolling systems generally has been the idea that we could not possibly afford to introduce toll booths on every access road to every city. It would be wholly impractical. The proposition that the hon. Gentleman quite understandably puts forward is not at odds with the concept of tolling; it illustrates vividly and graphically that there should not be physical toll booths at which vehicles have to stop. That is the way in which technology is moving and it will not be many years before it is taken for granted.

Sir Donald Thompson

I thank my hon. Friend for his cautious approach. May I remind him that market towns are not cities and often need people to come by car to shop and then to go away? If people cannot do that, they will use out-of-town shopping centres where parking is free.

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That would be a counter-productive response. In any event, it would overlook the fact that local authorities can take a great many measures to alleviate town centre congestion—such as bus priorities, traffic calming, park and ride, and cycle improvements, all of which can produce the result that my hon. Friend would want for his towns and villages without the expensive infrastructure and the real difficulties to which he has just referred.