A national congestion charging scheme appears to be firmly back on the Government’s agenda again, despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm among local councils to embrace the idea.
Chancellor Alistair Darling used his Budget speech to confirm that he is considering introducing UK-wide road pricing.
His announcement came a week after West Midlands council leaders rejected congestion charging on the grounds that imposing a levy on motorists to drive into towns and cities could damge the regional economy.
However, Mr Darling said that if Britain was to remain competitive over the next 20 to 30 years the Government had to take more radical steps to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads.
He announced he was setting aside new funding to develop the technology which could underpin national road pricing, inviting tenders to test this with the results expected next year.
The move, which appeared to put paid to Government attempts at persuading local councils to volunteer to run individual road pricing projects, was welcomed by the chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry who said a national road pricing scheme was "inevitable".
Jerry Blackett, who also chairs the West Midlands Business Transport Group, said only a UK-wide scheme would be fair.
He said the Government had displyed "craven cowardice" by attempting to persuade local councils to introduce congestion charging on an ad hoc basis.
Mr Blackett added: "My personal view is that at some stage we will need pricing to regulate congestion, around the motorways in particular. But there is a tidal wave agaisnt it and I will get flack for saying we should look at it. In my opinion road pricing has a role to play."
West Midlands councils joined scores of local authorities across the country in rejecting an offer of lucrative cash grants to improve public transport in return for experimenting with congestion charging schemes.
One of the reasons given was the lack of a satellite-based tracking system of the type which Mr Darling appears to be considering now.
Leaders of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils and the passenger transport executive Centro spent two years debating how charging schemes might work and the extent to which they might cut the £2.2 billion annual cost to the region’s businesses of congestion.
They published the Gridlock or Growth report in 2007, which suggested London-style cordons around Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhamton, where motorists would pay £5 a day to enter the cities.
But the proposal was dropped last week along with an alternative plan which would have involved drivers paying according to the time of day they travelled and the type of road used. The pay-as-you-go scheme could only have worked with a sophisticated satellite tracking system placed in each vehicle, but the technology for that was said to be at least 10 years away.
Centro and the councils concluded that charging cordons would be unfair and likely to harm the region’s economy.
Road pricing could hit businesses if pilot schemes were confined to Birmingham and not replicated across the whole of the West Midlands, the councils found. There were also concerns that the region would be disadvantaged if it ran congestion charging schemes while other parts of the country did not.
Centro chief executive Geoff Inskip said it had proved impossible to find a way of fairly implementing a region-wide scheme.