Lori Anderson: Tax disc goodbye ‘end of an era’

THE DVLA has released on YouTube a very strange little film in which a young man breaks up with Tina his giant-sized car tax disc.

Goodbye to the tax disc as CCTV takes over the policing. Picture: Rob McDougall
Goodbye to the tax disc as CCTV takes over the policing. Picture: Rob McDougall

“There’s no easy way to say this but… I don’t think I want you around any more. I’m 30 you’re 93… You can’t deny it, in that time you have put on a few pounds and we’ve been spending too much time together… I get up in the morning jump in the car you are there, go to work get back in the car you are there, I jump in the car to go and see the boys... you’re there – I just think it’s a bit too much.

“Don’t get me wrong we have had some great times! And the truth is there is somebody else, somebody online who does everything for me. I know you have put up with a lot – you have been ripped, creased and shoved into that holder and in fairness you have never said anything... but I can’t help the way I feel. So Tina, from the first of October 2014 it’s over and you are gone. Thanks for all the history, all the good times, I’ll never forget you – bye!”

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Well, that was flippant, I hope Tina whispers to her papery colleague, the car manual, to meddle with his brakes.

The wafer-thin, round road tax disc rolls far back into the past. While it made its first appearance on the front of vehicles in 1921, the government’s desire to secure payment for the use of public highways, byways and bridges goes back centuries. In medieval times, tolls and turnpikes were created to collect tax from anyone who used a particular road or bridge with everyone from the humble peasant shuffling across on rag-wrapped feet, to the affluent noblemen sitting in his ornate horse-drawn carriage, forced to prise open their draw-string purse. The first time a tax was attached to a particular mode of transport was in 1633 when the horse-drawn hackney cabs of London were required to display a licence. A century later, in 1747, all carriages drawn by two or more horses had to pay an annual tax or licence.

In the 19th century the Locomotive Act of 1861 ensured that the taxation of all vehicles on British roads was administered by local councils, which continued until the DVLC, later DVLA, was set up in 1974. In 1865 a speed limit of 4 mph was enforced for all steam vehicles if accompanied out front by a man carrying a red flag to provide ample warning for pedestrians. In the late 19th century a steam vehicle licence was required annually, it expired in December and only allowed the vehicle to be used on the roads of the local county. A new licence was required for each county in which the vehicle passed. Licences were on paper and included the owner’s address. While the licence plate arrived in 1903, courtesy of the French, the tax disc was introduced in 1921, and although the holder was specified as being round the “disc” came on a square piece of paper, with national symbols including the thistle, on all four corners. For 17 years drivers either tore or trimmed it to fit as the perforated disc – sounds painful – did not appear until 1938 and then only for four years disappearing for a decade in 1942 after the German’s bombed the factory containing the perforating equipment.

Over the decades the road tax disc has evolved from plain black and white to include a rainbow hue of colours while the quality of the paper has also advanced in a bid to stay a few gears ahead of forgers.

Today it comes fitted out with star shaped perforations, gold foils, bar codes and a hologram.

Or at least it did as the final ones to be issued will no longer have perforations as the government has run out of that particular roll of paper and sees no need to re-order.

Under the new computerised system drivers will be able to spread the cost of their road tax by paying monthly by direct debit (for a 5 per cent surcharge) and enjoy a refund on any remaining months if the vehicle is sold.

The onus will now fall on the seller to inform the DVLA of the change of ownership and if they forget they will be eligible for parking fines and vehicle tax and could also be fined up to £1,000.

Tracking down those who drive untaxed vehicles will now be handled by “Big Brother”, the traffic cameras fitted with registration identification systems, which I do find slightly sinister, but since our CCTV culture does little to prevent violent crime it might as well do something to earn its keep.

My affection for tax discs does not extend to the love affair enjoyed by the velologists, who will pay as much as £800 for a pristine example from December 1921 and hundreds for rare examples with typographical errors.

I will not be purchasing tax disc cuff-links, complete with my car registration, as fans have been known to do but I will miss its happy round face which for years has greeted me each morning.