‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose road building, toll motorways, traffic pollution. Choose tarmac, choose congestion. Choose climate change. Choose a two-tier road network, choose an M6 expressway . . .’

After twenty-five years fighting the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (M6 Toll), we were certain that no government would ever risk such a costly battle again. We were wrong. On 7th July, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced a national consultation on a proposed new toll motorway, parallel to the existing M6, through Staffordshire and Cheshire.

However, details of this 'M6 Expressway' are few and far between, save that it will be tolled in a similar manner to the M6 Toll in Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The precise method of tolling, the toll rates that will be charged, and the concession regime that will finance the road’s construction remain shrouded in undecidedness. Indeed, we’re not even being treated to so much as an outline route for the road, for this is a consultation on the principle of using a tolling mechanism to build new roads and increase capacity on the road network.

If they can get away with this sort of scheme in the West Midlands/North West then they will use it to try and ‘widen’ other motorways across the UK, all in the name of giving the motorist more 'choice'.

'Choice' seems to be the theme of this consultation, much as 'balance’ was in last year's aviation White Paper. Presumably, 'first class' road users will pay for the privilege of a free-flowing expressway while the 'plebs' will have to make do with the grotty old M6. The result would be a 'two-tier' road network through our countryside, dumping yet more congestion in towns and cities. Public transport users and those without access to a car will, as usual, be left behind in this wonderland of private 'choice'.

On 20th July the Government announced a refreshed transport White Paper entitled 'The Future of Transport', kicking off a national debate on comprehensive road-user charging. This is welcome, but road user charging could take at least ten years to become a polluter-pays reality. While we support the principle of a variable charging mechanism at the point of use for all roads, we reject the principle of building new roads and then funding them through a toll mechanism.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth would like to see variable road-user charging introduced as part of a wider policy of traffic reduction. Drivers should be encouraged to think more about whether their journeys are really necessary, and whether the alternatives, such as public transport, cycling or walking would be more appropriate.

Variable road user charging will differentiate between rural and urban areas, and reflect public transport availability along different corridors and at different times of the day. The money raised should continue to be invested in the high-quality public transport required to give everyone a choice as to how they get about on a day-to-day basis.

The charge will also help cut emissions of greenhouse gases from transport: good news for the DfT now that it has been given joint responsibility for the Government’s carbon dioxide emissions reduction target. There will still need to be tax on fuels, however, to reflect the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions released from burning fossil fuels.