Think before you sign that petition

Stationary traffic on Britain's main M1 motorway. Photo: Steve Bowbrick
I like road pricing but it’s a big, important policy and – inevitably – it’s a proper curate’s egg. To start with we need to understand what’s good and what’s bad about it.

The good parts:

It’s subtle. Much subtler, for instance, than the sledgehammer of general taxation.

It’s direct. Tweak the price for this evening’s rush hour and you’ll see the effect tomorrow (politics notwithstanding). Achieving the policy’s goals (reducing congestion) should be possible.

It’s green. It’s about reassignment of capacity and reduction of load and it requires a better understanding of demand. All of this is good.

It explains itself. Nothing like a forty-foot illuminated road-sign with a price on it to communicate public policy.

The bad parts:

It’s not progressive. Worse, making it progressive would require huge violations of privacy (connecting government computers to provide discounts for pensioners, for instance).

It’s a potential privacy nightmare. The instinct of officials and legislators is always threefold: capture everything, link it with everything else and keep it forever. That erodes liberty and damages public trust.

It’s also a potential public IT money pit (we’re good at those).

It’s politically difficult. No one likes new taxes, everyone assumes it will duplicate existing taxes (difficult to argue with, that one) – and then there’s ‘the motoring lobby’.

It’s indiscriminate. It will punish people who work in low-skill, labour-rich businesses – employers won’t have much incentive to provide flexible working hours so these workers will just have to fork out for rush-hour charges.

It doesn’t address the underlying problem. In a modern, growth-oriented society (i.e. all of them except North Korea) demand must continue to grow. Providing alternatives to congested roads will become even more important once incentives to stop using them are in place.

It ought to be:

Accountable. Prices should be set by a body you can vote for – a local authority or central government – not by the Highways Agency or a new Quango.

Not Big Brother. Everyone knows that you can make even big real world systems like this one ‘blind’, with a parsimonious data policy: recording only the data needed, connecting it with other data only in an emergency and dumping records as soon as they’ve been used, for instance. It’s just that the instinct of Governments and officials is always to go further. A project like this could be an opportunity to show that public IT doesn’t need to be elephantine, intrusive, broken. How about a system designed from scratch as an exemplar of Big Brother-Free data policy? Fat chance, I suppose.

Simple: designed by a couple of geeks in a room, not by KPMG or Accenture. Design goals like: small, elegant and simple should come ahead of mega-contractor priorities like: redundant, integrated, comprehensive. The totalising instincts of the big boys have got us into enough of a mess over the years. We could take this opportunity to reverse a malignant trend.

I wonder if the big petition might provide the kind of opportunity for a debate about road pricing that Big Brother provided last month about racism and bullying. If it does, I’d say that’s a small victory for Number 10’s openness and readiness to host dissenting voices.

2 thoughts on “Think before you sign that petition

  1. I agree with SN, it’s much fairer to simply hike fuel duty, then the carbon emissions & other pollution is what the user pays for. Thirsty cars are penalised more than the small car user. And it’s a whole lot simpler with no potential BB intrusion.

  2. Well, I agree in one way: I think governments (esp. our one) are addicted to applying technology to meeting policy goals. Road pricing obviously meets this need: nifty onboard kit, complex real-time applications, monster databases, adaptive pricing and all that. The idea of doing something simple, sustainable and appropriate won’t have occurred to anyone…

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