Planting more trees and providing better information to drivers are among the planks of the Government's plans to cut pollution, following World Environment Day yesterday. But it also plans to bring in car-pool lanes on the M1 and M25 and, for the longer term, is firming up its plans to introduce universal, satellite-based road charging.
Transport secretary Alistair Darling is looking for a cross-party deal to bring in laws that enable a highly ambitious road-charging scheme. The rationale, said Darling, is to avert the prospect of "complete gridlock" on Britain's highways.
If introduced, under the scheme drivers will have to pay between 2p and £1.30 a mile for each car journey, depending on the road and when they drive. They will be monitored by satellite, with variable rates levied according to the time, type of road and location.
In mitigation, he said fuel tax and vehicle excise duty would be cut. However, Darling did not say whether the overall tax take would stay the same or rise as a consequence -- one cannot imagine it would reduce.
The plan is to introduce a bill within two years for a pilot charging scheme using satellite technology. This could start in the Midlands or in Manchester by 2010.
Reaction from the other two main parties has been muted with the Lib Dems giving it a cautious welcome, provided it was not a stealth tax. The Tories said lowering congestion was a good idea but questioned why the Government did not mention it before the election.
Last year, the Department of Transport conducted a feasibility study that concluded that universal road charging could cut traffic by four per cent, which it said was enough to cut the time drivers spend in jams by up to 46 per cent.
While there is support among organisations such as the RAC Foundation for encouragement to travel outside of rush hours in order to stagger the load on Britain's overcrowded roads, the motoring body pointed out that car owners already pay £42bn annually in tax, of which only £6bn is spent on improving roads.
PistonHeads adds that the scheme will rely heavily on a complex computer-based system as well as satellites. The UK government has not been very successful at making computer schemes work, and getting them set up on time and within budget.
Darling said that nationwide charging might happen within "10 to 15 years", although he recognised that it would be impossible to impose without public support.
The Highways Agency, which is responsible for England's motorways and trunk roads, recently planted its 50 millionth tree on land next to motorways and trunk roads, as part of the planting scheme for the Lamberhurst bypass on the A21 in Kent. Tree and shrub planting covers nearly half the Agency's 33,000 hectare estate and brings benefits for air quality, biodiversity and landscape integration.
Reducing pollution from vehicles is one of the benefits from delivering better travel information to drivers. The Agency's new national traffic control centre in Quinton, Birmingham has begun delivering this service nationally.
The Agency is developing plans for a car share lane on the M1 and investigating a similar scheme on the M25 to help reduce the number of cars using these motorways.
Meanwhile staff in the Agency are being encouraged to switch to greener forms of travel to get to and from work.
When the Highways Agency moves offices in Bedford later this year, all staff will be offered the chance to switch from cars to bicycles. Five bikes are being made available at Woodlands, the new Agency offices, for staff wishing to use them under the book-a-bike scheme.
In Manchester, staff are guaranteed a car parking place if they car share. In Birmingham if staff give up using the car and switch to trains, they are given a 50 per cent reduction on a season ticket for the first year. Seventy staff have opted for the train so far.
Peter Evans, the Agency's green travel coordinator says: "Each of these actions may seem small but together they can make a big difference. We have been delighted with the positive response from our staff."
Under a new initiative to support the environment alongside strategic roads, the Agency has launched the environment management system to map the wildlife, plant life and cultural heritage alongside these important roads. The information will be available to road managers in an electronic format.