Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Response from the Prime Minister

Thank you for taking the time to register your views about road pricing on the Downing Street website.

This petition was posted shortly before we published the Eddington Study, an independent review of Britain's transport network. This study set out long-term challenges and options for our transport network.

It made clear that congestion is a major problem to which there is no easy answer. One aspect of the study was highlighting how road pricing could provide a solution to these problems and that advances in technology put these plans within our reach. Of course it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible.

That is the backdrop to this issue. As my response makes clear, this is not about imposing "stealth taxes" or introducing "Big Brother" surveillance. This is a complex subject, which cannot be resolved without a thorough investigation of all the options, combined with a full and frank debate about the choices we face at a local and national level. That's why I hope this detailed response will address your concerns and set out how we intend to take this issue forward. I see this email as the beginning, not the end of the debate, and the links below provide an opportunity for you to take it further.

But let me be clear straight away: we have not made any decision about national road pricing. Indeed we are simply not yet in a position to do so. We are, for now, working with some local authorities that are interested in establishing local schemes to help address local congestion problems. Pricing is not being forced on any area, but any schemes would teach us more about how road pricing would work and inform decisions on a national scheme. And funds raised from these local schemes will be used to improve transport in those areas.

One thing I suspect we can all agree is that congestion is bad. It's bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment. That is why tackling congestion is a key priority for any Government.

Congestion is predicted to increase by 25% by 2015. This is being driven by economic prosperity. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997, and predictions are that this trend will continue.

Part of the solution is to improve public transport, and to make the most of the existing road network. We have more than doubled investment since 1997, spending £2.5 billion this year on buses and over £4 billion on trains - helping to explain why more people are using them than for decades. And we're committed to sustaining this investment, with over £140 billion of investment planned between now and 2015. We're also putting a great deal of effort into improving traffic flows - for example, over 1000 Highways Agency Traffic Officers now help to keep motorway traffic moving.

But all the evidence shows that improving public transport and tackling traffic bottlenecks will not by themselves prevent congestion getting worse. So we have a difficult choice to make about how we tackle the expected increase in congestion. This is a challenge that all political leaders have to face up to, and not just in the UK. For example, road pricing schemes are already in operation in Italy, Norway and Singapore, and others, such as the Netherlands, are developing schemes. Towns and cities across the world are looking at road pricing as a means of addressing congestion.

One option would be to allow congestion to grow unchecked. Given the forecast growth in traffic, doing nothing would mean that journeys within and between cities would take longer, and be less reliable. I think that would be bad for businesses, individuals and the environment. And the costs on us all will be real - congestion could cost an extra £22 billion in wasted time in England by 2025, of which £10-12 billion would be the direct cost on businesses.

A second option would be to try to build our way out of congestion. We could, of course, add new lanes to our motorways, widen roads in our congested city centres, and build new routes across the countryside. Certainly in some places new capacity will be part of the story. That is why we are widening the M25, M1 and M62. But I think people agree that we cannot simply build more and more roads, particularly when the evidence suggests that traffic quickly grows to fill any new capacity.

Tackling congestion in this way would also be extremely costly, requiring substantial sums to be diverted from other services such as education and health, or increases in taxes. If I tell you that one mile of new motorway costs as much as £30m, you'll have an idea of the sums this approach would entail.

That is why I believe that at least we need to explore the contribution road pricing can make to tackling congestion. It would not be in anyone's interests, especially those of motorists, to slam the door shut on road pricing without exploring it further.

It has been calculated that a national scheme - as part of a wider package of measures - could cut congestion significantly through small changes in our overall travel patterns. But any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected - as it should be. Existing technologies, such as mobile phones and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, may well be able to play a role here, by ensuring that the Government doesn't hold information about where vehicles have been. But there may also be opportunities presented by developments in new technology. Just as new medical technology is changing the NHS, so there will be changes in the transport sector. Our aim is to relieve traffic jams, not create a "Big Brother" society.

I know many people's biggest worry about road pricing is that it will be a "stealth tax" on motorists. It won't. Road pricing is about tackling congestion.

Clearly if we decided to move towards a system of national road pricing, there could be a case for moving away from the current system of motoring taxation. This could mean that those who use their car less, or can travel at less congested times, in less congested areas, for example in rural areas, would benefit from lower motoring costs overall. Those who travel longer distances at peak times and in more congested areas would pay more. But those are decisions for the future. At this stage, when no firm decision has been taken as to whether we will move towards a national scheme, stories about possible costs are simply not credible, since they depend on so many variables yet to be investigated, never mind decided.

Before we take any decisions about a national pricing scheme, we know that we have to have a system that works. A system that respects our privacy as individuals. A system that is fair. I fully accept that we don't have all the answers yet. That is why we are not rushing headlong into a national road pricing scheme. Before we take any decisions there would be further consultations. The public will, of course, have their say, as will Parliament.

We want to continue this debate, so that we can build a consensus around the best way to reduce congestion, protect the environment and support our businesses. If you want to find out more, please visit the attached links to more detailed information, and which also give opportunities to engage in further debate.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What are we to do?

I signed the petition asking for a debate on the suggested pay as you go road tax scheme. As such, I'm now expecting an email from Tony Blair explaining why he thinks this is a good idea. I think this will be a tough letter to write! As I understand it the main aim is to cut road congestion - the second aim will probably be to cut carbon emissions too. My retailiation to both of these is what are the alternatives? Bus, Rail, Plane, Ship? I think not - in practice people don't really have a choice...

I only have a short journey into work in the mornings, it is already quite expensive to park in the city of Glasgow for more than 3 hours so it is usually cheaper for me to catch the Bus or the Train - the Bus takes 45 minutes, is every 10 minutes, smells and is too busy to get a seat at peak times; the train takes 20 minutes (starts and ends at the same places as the train) and is every 30 minutes, reasonably reliable and again too busy for me to get a seat a peak times; obviously cannot do plane or ship for this journey. Luckily I can start and leave work at off peak times allowing me to get a seat, so I go by train - the bus is £2.50 and train is £2.70, but the train is much quicker. This is a common sense choice for me.

My wife works as a school teacher, she must be in work at 8.30am (rush hour). It is a 15 minute car journey. Impractical to travel by train due to the distance of that line's stations from our home and the school. There are buses that travel close by our house and the school, but that would require a change of bus and travelling on the same bus as other school kids (not usually a good idea in this country). Therefore Car is the only practical solution here. Again a common sense choice.

In response to emissions; we own property in Spain and we drive there. It takes about 2 to 3 days of driving through wonderful scenery (once through the Eurotunnel that is) and is a joyous and relaxing drive. We do travel on the mostly on the French autoroutes and the Spanish toll roads. It costs us about 90 euros (£60) to travel through France and Spain - a total of 1200 miles and get full use of the ample rest stops on the French motorways. In terms of carbon emmisions; a plane jouney would emit 0.5 tonnes per passenger each way (total of 2 tonnes for 2 people return); driving emits 0.5 tonnes each way (total of 1 tonne return) and the train emits 0.35 tonnes per person each way (total of 1.4 tonnes for 2 poeple return). As far as I understand this - taking the car is the most environmentally friendly way of getting myself, my wife and my dog to Spain (in a 2.5 litre Diesel Van). Therefore car is the most environmentally friendly way of travelling.

I am hoping that Tony Blair's email to me will explain how he plans to upgrade Britain's public transport systems to cope with the obvious increase of passengers at peak times. How he is going to ensuring that those passengers arrive at their places of business just as relaxed as they would have done by car. His plans to remove the statutory annual road tax and remove the tax on fuel reducing it to European prices (in Spain it costs 0.90 euro cents per litre - about 60p).

Perhaps labour will make the congestion charges variable depending on what time you travel at. This could make it extremely unfair - and expensive - to those who cannot adjust their working hours.

I look forward to read what he'll say...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Maths Puzzles and Alzheimer's

There is a history of Alzheimer's in my family so most things like this interest me. It appears maths puzzles help fend off Alzheimer's which is jolly good luck since I enjoy maths puzzles - particularly Sudoku.

One of the puzzles the Telegraph examples is surprisingly difficult - a colour test. Not really a maths puzzle - but bloody difficult. You have to read out the colour of the words, which are names of not necessarily the same colour.

Read the article on the Telegraph here

Dom Joly in an Indian Call Centre

I get really frustrated with the number of calls I get from indian call centres and it appears Dom Joly does too. I watched this episode of Happy Hour last night and found it hilarious as Dom Joly puts a small spanner in the works during an Intelenet English phonetics training session by introducing some alternative words!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mighty Mouse Scrolling

Something that bugged me since owning an Apple Mighty Mouse since March last year is it's seemingly inability to scroll horizontally and vertically at the same time (diagonal scrolling) - being a ball you'd think it could. This facility is particularly useful in apps like Photoshop...

For some unknown reason I never thought to look in the mouse preferences to discover a 'scrolling options' selector box which offers an option to allow 360 degree scrolling... At last I can scroll in a circle with my mouse 'wheel'!

Whilst writing this I've just discovered another thing which I 'miss' from Windows; to middle click and scroll down a webpage. On my mac, whenever I try this I invoke the Dashboard which is frustrating, if I hold down the control key however, I can drag and scroll down a website in Firefox.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Steve Jobs on DRM

This is quite an interesting post by Steve Jobs about the state of play with DRM and online music.

With many European companies complaining directly to Apple about the restrictions employed by the iTunes music store, Steve points out that 2.5 of the 4 big music companies are based in European companies so the finger should be pointed in their own backyard. Looks like Jobs' is fed up with getting the flak...

Another concern which I have heard time and time again is 'DRM locks you into a specific device'. Steve counters this by providing the statistics that about 22 in every 1000 songs in each iPod is from their iTunes store - I agree with this - 2% of your music isn't going to stop you from ditching your iPod and picking up a Zune... In fact, looking at my iPod, I have 34 protected items on it - and 3561 of 'normal' music and videos on it. The number of songs purchased from iTunes will be a little higher as before I had an iPod I burned the music to CD and reimported it, but it still well under a few percent. I could easily switch to another device if I wanted to.

It really looks like DRM music is a complete waste of time, especially when the majority of music is being sold on CDs - although contrary to Steve Jobs' argument record companies are trying to inflict 'compatible' copy protected CDs upon us.

I think it is refreshing that the largest retailer of online music is taking the attitude that DRM is bad! You have my support.

I found this in an article on TUAW
Here is the original posting on Apple