The Government has finally published its draft for the long-awaited Local Transport Bill, giving local authorities in major urban areas new powers to introduce road pricing schemes.

The bill promises to “update existing powers so that where local areas wish to develop proposals for local road pricing schemes, they have the freedom and flexibility to do so in a way that best meets local needs”.

Crucially, that means local councils are free to introduce schemes weighted according to time of journey or type of road, and by vehicle emissions. Ten local authorities are currently exploring the possibly of introducing charging but the Government will retain the right to control tariffs.

The good news for fleets is a Government pledge to ensure technology is matched across the various towns and cities to ease the administrative burden. It looks likely that the London scheme will also be brought in line with the new projects. The draft bill also advises that fleet operators should be offered the opportunity to operate a single account that covers their vehicles in all the regional congestion charge zones, rather than dealing separately with each operator.

The Department for Transport denies that this is the first step towards national road charging, claiming the new bill “would not provide the legal powers that would be needed for a national system of road pricing”. It will predictably be looking at the success of local schemes as future decisions “can be taken only in the light of further practical experience of local schemes”.

The first proposals are expected later this year, going live in four to five years. National road pricing could, according to the DfT, “not be in place before the middle of the next decade at the earliest.”

The Government denials of this being a precursor to national charging come in the face of 1.8m people signing a petition against such a scheme earlier this year, and were met with predictable scorn by the Conservative party. “Despite the Government’s public denials, the truth is that this bill is a Trojan horse for national road pricing,” said shadow transport secretary Chris Grayling. “To make matters worse, they are blackmailing local authorities into being guinea pigs for road pricing so they don’t have to take the flack for it.”

The Forum for Private Business called for the local authorities to hold referendums to decide whether local people were willing to accept congestion charging, as was the case in Edinburgh when plans were dropped in the face of large public opposition.

The latest grants for local authorities were also announced last week, with more than £2.2m being shared between West Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Leicester and Nottingham.

The bill focuses on using the money from local road charging schemes to improve local transport, specifically bus services, in an attempt to keep public favour and avoid criticisms that road charging is another way of milking the motorist. “An increasing body of evidence suggests that local road pricing schemes can be more acceptable to the public if revenues are clearly and transparently being used to improve transport in the local area,” said the report attached to the draft bill.

The DfT is planning a number of consultation events in the coming months, and the draft bill’s full public consultation process closes on Friday 7 September. It will then make its way through depending on when Parliament time can be found for discussion.