The Number 10 petitions website continues to fascinate me. I have resisted further temptation to sign up to stuff, even the delightful suggestion that we replace our stolid national anthem with Gold by Spandau Ballet.
Since my earlier criticism, which was picked up by Peter Riddell in The Times, I continue to be concerned that petitions imply apparent support for opinions with no opportunity to register dissent. However, this is not the end of the story. The petitions page could, in theory, garner in excess of 30m signatures for a particular policy. Would the Government then be compelled to legislate? If so, could this usher in the tyranny of the masses?
As a liberal I am concerned that democracy not excuse tyranny. The fact that a majority want something does not automatically justify it, especially if it is detrimental to others.
The petition that is concerning me at the moment is the most popular by far, out-polling even the repeal of the Hunting Act. An impressive 15,493 signatures have so far been appended to a petition calling upon the Government to Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy.
The thinking behind this petition is confused and wrong. The text of the full petition states that “Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay.” While this does address the global environmental cost in the form of the carbon and other pollutants produced, it does not address the other main environmental concern – congestion. It is as expensive for me to drive a mile across the Highlands as it is across Piccadilly, yet roads in the Highlands are far more costly per mile facilitated as they are rarely used, while urban driving causes more lethal pollution (it is concentrated and hovers around pedestrians and residential properties) and slows other traffic, costing time and thus money.
Then, in a startling example of counter logic, the petitioners conclude “Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion.” In fact, only road pricing can reduce congestion, because congestion is a natural by-product of free access; consumption unlimited by cost will expand until the consumer can gorge no more. Compare two other commodities: Britain has been awash with food since the Corn Laws were abolished (a bout of ill-conceived war-rationing aside) because we pay per loaf, but every year we are issued with hose-pipe bans because we pay a flat fee for unlimited water. As long as we can use the road without having to pay for it, we will use it without constraint.
An what about road improvements? Transport policy has always been a shambles as it has failed to compete for tax-money with more immediate concerns (health, education, war). To forestall one traditional liberal comment, Land Value Taxation would go part way to convincing those who benefit to fund infrastructure. But there is still a compelling case for the user to pay, at lest for the running costs if not for building in the first place (in fact, few infrastructure projects and no railways can be built if they rely on recouping their costs from users, as the stories of Railtrack and the Channel Tunnel both amply demonstrate).
Sadly, this argument has yet to be broadly accepted. Too many people in Britain have become used to free and unlimited road use. Thus, as with so many other “free” services, we are bedazzled by the joy of unlimited consumption to the point of being blind to the real costs that appear in the gap between our gross and net salaries.
Thus I fear Number 10’s petitions page. Government has a duty to lead, and with its decision to consider road user pricing, this Government has shown uncharacteristic leadership. Yet it has form for caving in to populism. I would love to sign a counter-petition to debunk the growing impression that people oppose road user pricing. But if I am in the minority I hope the Government still presses ahead. It is effective, it is efficient and it is fair.