Liberalism and technocracy don’t mix

Oh dear. The cheerleaders for road user charging in the Lib Dems have decided to step up a gear. We will, no doubt, have another row about this at party conference in the autumn and Clegg will no doubt turn it into a vote of confidence issue and win (people who diss Labour MPs for meekly falling into line over their government on 42 days would do well to remember that our own party has a tendency to put the same party interests over principle). That doesn’t make him right though.

Can it really be more than 2 1/2 years since I last blogged about this subject? I don’t have too much to add. To an extent the privacy/civil liberties argument is a red herring, albeit an understandable one, in that it is entirely possible to develop a system and regulatory framework which would respect privacy and penalise infringers severely. The most obvious step would be to not store all the data in one place and not allow people to exchange it without permission from the user. There are pragmatic objections to this – the police and civil service would allow a system which genuinely respects privacy to go ahead over the mound of their collective dead bodies – but not especial principled ones.

My main objections are threefold: it would take bloody ages to introduce, it is an IT disaster waiting to happen and it falls foul of the unintended consequences law.

The first point is that we need to be taking action over climate change now. Looking towards theoretically perfect systems in the future is in this respect a waste of time. It is designed to take pressure of politicians in the short term on the basis there will be jam (or rather in this case a lack of jams) tomorrow. Don’t expect our message to be “punitive fuel taxes now” expect it to be “nice cuddly road charging tomorrow”. That in itself should be dismissed as political cowardice.

As an aside, I can but wonder why it is that we leap on proposals such as this, which will take the best part of a decade to introduce, yet the constant objection to having any specific policy on land value taxation at all is that it will take 1-2 parliamentary terms to introduce.

Secondly, governments don’t do IT systems awfully well. To be fair, old Ken Livingstone seemed to manage both the C-Charge and Oyster competently enough, which is why I gave him my second preference vote (pretty much the only reason why I gave him my second preference vote, for all the good it did either of us), but this system would be of a vastly bigger order of magnitude. We’re talking about a system in which either every single car in the country has to have GPS installed or where every single road in the country has to have CC-TV introduced. No halfway measures will do. How is this going to work? How is it going to be policed? How are we going to stop unregistered cars from driving around unhindered? We don’t seem to have any answers to these questions. On “rat running” the best we can come up with is “the technology chosen must allow for penalties to be enforced on drivers who ‘rat run’ in order to avoid payment,” which is another way of saying “we don’t have a bleedin’ clue how to solve this problem, but don’t pester us with details!”

Thirdly, unintended consequences. It is a fact, uncontestable, that this policy calls for a tax shift away from pollution and onto congestion. The unambiguous winners of this system will be people in rural areas who do a lot of driving on largely deserted roads. These people will be given every incentive to continue their polluting ways. Their tax burden will be taken up by urban motorists. This in itself seems remarkably unfair, but then I’m not a 60-something retiree living the life of Riley out in the sticks and driving a Mercedes, who this policy is surely targeted at.

The solution to congestion is not necessarily fewer cars on the road, but less bunching. This system, combined with increasingly sophisticated satnav systems, will certainly do that, but making it quicker and easier to get about by car is not going to discourage car use, but promote it. People are addicted to cars enough as it is – this will just make it harder to wean them off.

Fundamentally, what would road user charging achieve that a combination of fuel taxes, satnav and simpler (and thus harder to game) congestion charges in strategic areas won’t do more quickly, with less investment in infrastructure and without the civil liberty implications? Thus far I have yet to hear an answer to that.

The other, related policy measure is personal carbon credits which was doing the rounds last week. In this case I at least accept that the economics makes more sense and the civil liberty implications are less because it would actually be simpler to let the private sector manage the scheme. Once again however, it is hard to see why you need a big, complex technical solution when having companies buy the credits directly, passing the cost onto customers and having the government pass the revenue onto the population in the form of a citizens’ income would amount to about the same thing.

There is also the growing realisation that the global carbon trading scheme isn’t working as it should. That isn’t to say the system is doomed to failure, but until the current gaping loopholes have been filled and there has been a significant culture shift, talking about making the system personal is pie in the sky.

Generally speaking, if vastly complex IT systems are the solution, you are asking the wrong questions. Such systems are attractive to politicians because they know they sound green by talking about them in the full knowledge that they won’t be around if and when they are actually implemented. We don’t have enough time to put up with such vanity.


  1. Great post James, I agree with your comments re: IT systems.

    However “in that it is entirely possible to develop a system and regulatory framework which would respect privacy and penalise infringers severely.”

    Does sound like an excuse for the creation of a myriad of databases as long as they are possible, while a system may be created with good intentions, it only takes one false move and the whole thing becomes quite offensive, human beings are after all, fallible.

  2. Databases are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. I think it is rather futile trying to fight it. What’s more important is to concentrate on digital rights and preventing the worst excesses.

    My point about storing data in multiple databases was merely that if there was a breach, the breach would have limited impact. Contrast that with the government’s obsession with all-singing, all-dancing national databases in which a single breach can put the entire UK population at risk.

  3. There is much to agree with in what you say but I think I must correct you on one very important point.

    “It is a fact, uncontestable, that this policy calls for a tax shift away from pollution and onto congestion.”

    Please allow me the opportunity to contest this “uncontestable” fact. The policy does not propose charging for roads where there is congestion. It proposes charging for trunk roads and motorways only and even then regardless of whether they are congested or not. The policy as it stands would have the perverse effect of providing an incentive to get off of trunk roads and motorways and onto alternative routes that almost always pass through towns and villages. This would increase congestion and pollution in these towns and villages. It would increase journey times. It would increase distances travelled and therefore increase fuel consumption. It would increase noise pollution. In fact the policy provides an incentive both to pollute and to cause congestion. This is on top of the obvious civil liberties arguments. This policy proposal is the worst of all worlds and conference must not sleepwalk into allowing it to pass in its present form.

  4. Amen.

    If most congestion is due to people driving to work, then there’s really no need to have a national system anyway. Just let every town/city (okay, perhaps county) create its own congestion charge zone schemes – surely these would largely be less complex than the London one. If there is a national agreement to allow everyone five free days a year or whatever, tourists aren’t penalized for not having a local congestion card (or whatever).

  5. You say: We’re talking about a system in which either every single car in the country has to have GPS installed or where every single road in the country has to have CC-TV introduced. No halfway measures will do.

    I say: reread the proposal, please. If charging is only proposed on motorways and trunk routes why is it necessary to start checking up on every street.

    I also say: we are approaching the day where every car will have GPS anyway (those that don’t can be treated as vintage vehicles or classic cars or whatever term the DVLA uses to exempt them) and we’ve had complete locating coverage with cellular directioning technology for more than a decade (that’s how mobile technology works).

    Halfway measures will do, but aren’t necessary, though we’ve already surpassed that point so technological concerns are an irrelevance.

    What is a serious concern is the design of any proposed system. The illiberal option is to automatically lump everything into a central database, while the liberal option is to separate the relevant information required from the details the information comprises beforeor during collection (there are several ways of doing this).

  6. Sadly, James, I think there are lots of powerful people in favour of this. I know I don’t always agree with you, but I’m with you on this, maybe to the extent of actually GOING to Autumn conference specifically to vote against this, if it’s going to come up. And that would cost me a good month’s wages.

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