The chances of Birmingham and the West Midlands trialling the first congestion charging scheme outside of London have been boosted after it emerged the Government is considering forcing local authorities to impose tolls on motorways and main roads.
Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander wants to put a Bill before Parliament as early as next year giving him the power to impose pay-as-you-go charges on motorists.
West Midlands councils, including Birmingham, have already indicated their willingness to take part in a road pricing pilot scheme on the understanding that income from tolls would be used to improve public transport.
In a leaked letter to cabinet colleagues, Mr Alexander suggests that drivers would have high-tech monitors fitted to their cars which record every journey made.
Charges would be imposed on the basis of the type of road used and the time of the journey, with peak-hour trips likely to attract the highest tolls.
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce believes congestion charging is inevitable but is demanding better trains, buses and trams before the imposition of road pricing.
Chamber policy director Jerry Blackett said: "We have got to understand the consequences for our local economy, which is relatively fragile compared with London.
"We have to be sure that if we introduce road pricing businesses feel they are going to be more competititve as a result."
Mr Alexander's proposal coincides with a survey indicating that increasing levels of traffic congestion are hitting the competitiveness of the West Midlands.
Jams on the motorway and trunk road network are already said to cost business in the region #2 billion a year in lost time.
The amount of Government money spent on transport in the region is #248 per head compared with #631 in London, according to the survey by the country's transport authorities.
A separate study by the Department for Trade and Industry shows that the average speed on West Midlands roads is 49mph, lower than anywhere except for London.
At present, it is up to local authorities to propose road-charging schemes - such as London's congestion charge - for approval by Ministers.
But, in his letter, Mr Alexander argues that he should be able to set national standards and prices to prevent the confusion that would result if different cities adopted differing schemes.
The letter to Leader of the Commons Jack Straw, dated July 20, makes clear that Mr Alexander is considering imposing charges not just in city centres but also on trunk roads.
"The main purpose of the Bill would be to support our efforts to cut congestion and improve public transport, particularly in the major cities outside London," he wrote. "It would also help to pave the way for a national road-pricing scheme in the medium-to long-term.
"I would propose reforming the current arrangements for approving local road-pricing schemes, providing better targeted powers to ensure that schemes are consistent with a national framework and are interoperable, and ensuring an appropriate framework governing the setting of prices and the use of resources.
"Current legislation offers very limited powers for pricing on the trunk road network outside of the area of a local scheme.
"We are considering pilots on the trunk road network as an important stage towards national road-pricing."
Mr Alexander has already said that road-pricing is something "we need to consider as a country", and pledged #10 million to support the development of the necessary technology.