Darling's Idea Could Save Us All from Traffic Meltdown

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Byline: PETER OBORNE

TRANSPORT Secretary Alistair Darling is, beyond doubt, the dullest minister in the Blair government, and that is saying a lot. I've been writing about Darling for more than eight years and, believe me, I know.

If you sit down and talk with him (I've done it once or twice) you find your eyes closing against your will. Listening to his speeches is like watching paint dry or the grass grow.

And yet, after eight years of this stultifying boredom, Darling has suddenly come up with the most amazing idea. It will change the way we live our lives more fundamentally than anything else which New Labour has thought of.

Darling wants to abolish fuel tax and use new satellite technology to tax car use in a very specific way. Journeys along empty roads would cost relatively little while travelling at peak time would cost a small fortune.

This is brilliant. It will lead to the most fundamental shake-up in road use since Lloyd George announced fuel duty in 1909.

I suppose that as a Conservative I ought to be against Darling's plan because it will restrict the freedom of the motorist. But I can't. Drivers already find their movement restricted by traffic jams on our grotesquely overcrowded motorways. As Darling points out, if road use continues to increase at the present rate some roads will reach " complete gridlock".

However, freedom for motorists is by no means the only consideration.

Freedom for motorists often ends up wrecking the environment and impoverishing the lives of everybody else.

Darling's idea is the equivalent to a kind of national congestion charge.

Ken Livingstone's brainchild has done wonders for London, but there are some lessons to be learned from it. The congestion system in the capital is starting to abuse its monopoly position - it is wrong that the fee should multiply by 10 if you pay a few hours late. No private business could ever penalise late payers on that basis and nor should the state.

A strong case could be made for the proceeds of Darling's new road-tax system going automatically into finding other forms of public transport so that people won't travel so much by road.

BACK in 1997, John Prescott - Britain's worst postwar transport minister - promised to reduce road traffic and improve public transport.

He achieved neither. Now Darling has devised a method which could help do both.

Tony Blair is said to be urgently contemplating what kind of legacy he will leave. He has failed on public services, Europe has become a shambles and Iraq looks terrible. I reckon dull-as-ditchwater Darling has just gifted the Prime Minister his best chance of leaving behind a better Britain.

And now, a lesson for the BBC THERE was a nice example recently of why so many of us feel that the BBC has come to represent some curious, alien culture.

A Radio 4 newsreader announced that the Government was changing "decades of tradition by altering the way reading is taught in schools".

But there was nothing traditional about the "whole word" method of teaching literacy, which Education Secretary Ruth Kelly rightly proposes to dump. It was dreamed up by a tiny group of trendy educationalists in the Sixties, with terrible consequences to millions of schoolchildren. …

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