Government in talks over tax on cyclists

A ROAD tax on cyclists is being considered by Scottish Government civil servants.

The prospect of cyclists paying a charge, like motorists, to use roads comes in a document outlining the Scottish Government's vision for cycling.

The draft Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CAPS), which has been released for public consultation, aims to ensure that, by 2020, 10 per cent of all journeys in Scotland are by bike.

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But it also raises the question of cyclists making a financial contribution to roads maintenance. The document states: "Should all road users pay road tax? If so, how much should it be for cyclists and how could it be enforced?"

If introduced, cyclists might be forced to register cycles with their local authority and pay annual amounts, as motorists do with vehicle excise duty.

The move comes as ministers are under pressure to come up with innovative ways to maintain public spending in the face of deep and sustained cuts due to the increasing national debt.

John Swinney has given his strongest signal yet that the Scottish Government will make public sector cuts in the draft 2010-11 Budget this week. The finance secretary admitted that public bodies had to be "streamlined" as he looked ahead to the publication of the bill on Thursday. Last week, Scotland on Sunday revealed from a leaked document that civil servants are planning for the government to introduce a 5 per cent cut in public sector spending, as well as possible tax increases, to bring the country's finances under control.

The document said officials believed that blanket cuts of 1.5 billion across every government area would "only be part of the solution".

The road tax suggestion has angered cycling organisations and environmental groups. Last night Green Party leader Patrick Harvie said: "Cyclists already have to pay through their council tax for the damage which others cause to Scotland's local roads, so ministers should drop this proposal and instead put more effort into supporting cycling and investing in safer cycle routes.

"If the SNP actually try to impose this absurd tax, then the non-payment campaign will be immediate and unstoppable."

The document does not make clear how much cyclists would have to pay or how it would be implemented, but Scotland on Sunday understands discussions have centred on registration plates for bikes – a proposal floated by Ken Livingstone when he was London mayor, although the plan was never adopted.

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Public finance expert Richard Kerley said the most likely method of implementing the tax would be to register all bicycles and making it a legal requirement for owners to have a registration document. The tax would then be paid yearly or six-monthly in a similar way to vehicle excise duty.

Professor Kerley, the vice-principal of Queen Margaret University, said: "Cyclists are not exactly causing a lot of wear and tear, but if the government is seeking to increase taxation, it would be one way of doing it.

The cycle tax has been criticised in many of the responses to the CAPS consultation document.

The consultation has just closed and later this year the government will produce a report that will determine cycling policy, based on responses.

Ian Aiken, chief executive of the government-backed Cycling Scotland and a member of the CAPS board that produced the paper, said: ""Cycling Scotland's view is cyclists should not be taxed, but it is important to ask the question."

Cycling Scotland's official response argued that bikes were carbon neutral and so should be exempt from vehicle taxation, levels of which are based on carbon dioxide emissions.

Gary Bell of Spokes, the Scottish cycling pressure group with 1,000 members, said: "Many cycle owners already pay road tax because they own a car. What about the practicalities? Are you trying to collect road tax from three-year-olds on tricycles? This document is trying to increase the number of cyclists and here they are constructing a barrier to prevent people getting a bicycle. It is utterly laughable."

Peter Hayman, another CAPS board member and the Scottish representative of the Cyclists Touring Club, claimed the tax suggestion was added to the paper without his knowledge.

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"I think this went in after we saw the final draft," he said. "The board saw the guts of the document, then the Scottish Government people put it together with some extra quotes, which we never saw. I don't think it should have been there because it distracts from the real question, which is: how do you get more people cycling?

"It would be completely impractical. Something like that would cost ten times the total investment in cycling to administer. The message missing from this plan is thatit is a great way of getting around that's pleasurable."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Scottish ministers have no plans to charge cyclists for using the roads in Scotland."