Road pricing is seen as a fairer possible system to raise revenue than fuel duty and motoring taxes, thinktank research has found.
The switch to electric cars means almost £30bn in fuel duty raised annually for the Treasury will need to be replaced, but politicians have shied away from introducing road pricing as an alternative.
Polling for the Social Market Foundation, however, suggests that the conventional political wisdom that voters are opposed to road pricing no longer holds true. Its research found that almost four in 10 people (38%) back road pricing to replace fuel duty and other taxes, with just over a quarter opposed (26%).
The rest were open to persuasion, the SMF said, and shared a strong public perception that fuel duty was a heavier burden than other taxes.
Fuel duty is 58p per litre of petrol or diesel in the UK. The rate has been frozen by successive Conservative chancellors for more than a decade after becoming a politically sensitive issue after protests.
The government has banned the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, making reform of taxes an urgent question for the Treasury.
Last month, sales of battery electric cars reached a record 33,000, about 15% of all new vehicles sold in the UK in September, including almost 7,000 Tesla Model 3s. But they remain a small fraction, however: between 1% and 2% of all cars on UK roads.
The SMF – whose research was conducted before the recent fuel crisis, when shortages of fuel at the pumps contributed to accelerating demand for electric cars – said the comparative openness to road pricing should encourage moves to find a new approach.
The research director, Scott Corfe, said: “For too long politicians have thought of reforming motoring taxes as grasping the nettle, fearful that a backlash from drivers will hit them at the polls.
“In reality, the public want to see a better, fairer system of how the UK taxes drivers. Our research shows that road pricing, often perceived as politically poisonous, is seen as a preferential option compared to our existing tax regime.”
Only a few toll roads exist in Britain, while the London congestion charge has not yet been replicated elsewhere since its introduction more than 20 years ago. The ultra-low emission zone in London expands to cover the areas up to the north and south circular roads on 25 October. Drivers whose vehicles exceed emissions standards must pay a daily charge to drive inside the zone.
Researchers found that the public remained suspicious of – and more opposed to – any system that would charge drivers by tracking their road use via a mobile app or black box.
Thinktanks have for some years urged governments to tackle the issue, while recognising that fuel duty remains the easiest way to tax motoring. The RAC Foundation has proposed a gradual move towards a charge based on distance travelled. The winner of the 2017 Wolfson Prize was a proposal for a pay-per-mile road pricing scheme, with the revenue to be collected via insurers.
The transport select committee will hold a hearing into road pricing next week, in time for Rishi Sunak’s budget on 27 October.