If you drive in to Switzerland you must buy a Vignette in order to use their motorways. It may only cost £25, but failure to buy one will result in you being shot.
Family holidays to Europe will account for the vast proportion of family holidays this year, whether they be short breaks, long breaks, or a quick whip to Tesco in Calais for some cheap booze.
But we can rarely get away with driving our cars in to one of Europe’s lovely countries without having to pay for the privilege of doing so.
So, as George Osbourne sets about his budget today in an effort to stem the hemorrhaging cash, I can’t help but think that one quick and easy way to start putting money back in to our coffers would be to charge those who travel in to our country for the privilege of doing so.
In the UK, we have one of the highest rates of road tax for our motorists, and we penalise them if they decide to reward themselves by buying a car with an engine. Tax on Heavy Goods Vehicles is now so steep that many continental trucking firms a long time ago took all their trucks and reregistered them in Belgium, which is much cheaper.
Now, those trucks, which are owned by UK companies, pay their annual road tax to the Belgium government and then drive in to the UK completely free of charge. Surely it would have been better to keep British money in Britain and tax somebody else instead?
If you take a family holiday to the south of France you can, pretty much, get there without using the glorious Autoroutes. But, by doing so, you will spend eighteen days stuck behind a tractor, ruining your suspension on potholed roads, arguing with French revolutionists protesting about supermarkets selling British beef and trying to fill your car up at automated petrol pumps that don’t accept British credit cards.
So you use the autoroute system instead. The roads are lovely, the service stations are pristine, there are rest stops every other mile and you’ll arrive, eventually, at your destination calm and satisfied. But a trip from Calais to Agay will cost you £75. By the time you’ve driven home again you will have paid the French more money than you pay the British in annual road tax for your Citroen C4 Picasso with a 1.6 diesel engine.
By the time you’ve scooted around Europe on your little family jaunt, taken in the Alps and some mafia boss’s house in Italy and soaked up the sun in St Tropez, not to mention pottering about in between to see different places, and then driven home again, you could easily have paid several hundred pounds to each country for the right to use their roads.
And yet, here in the UK, we are scared to apply such tax to our neighbours for fear that they will stop coming to visit us. So we let them drive around on our roads, without asking them for so much as a bean for doing so.
It’s a well-worn argument, but one that always gets shelved in deference to foreign relationships. Here’s the thing, however: our neighbours either hate us, or love us. Those that dislike us but travel here clearly do so under duress anyway, so they won’t stop coming just because we apply a fee to them for using our roads. Those that love us appreciate that their own countries already charge us for visiting them, so will continue to visit us and pay anyway.
Such a move could potentially add millions to our budget deficit.
Or, at the very least, the A14 might finally get some much-needed funding to get it widened.