Many of Britain’s roads are in a right old state, but as the government’s got no cash , Prime Minister David Cameron has come up with an idea which could see our highways opened up to private sector companies for investment.
The PM has ordered Whitehall ‘experts’ to look into the possibility of shake-ups of ownership and funding to encourage investors to back upgrades to the creaking roads network. The government envisages that investors would bid to run Britain’s major trunk roads and motorways, paying upfront fees for the potentially-lucrative leases, and have to demonstrate to a regulator that the highways are being kept up to scratch and delays and jams are being reduced.
While operators couldn’t introduce tolls on existing roads, they could charge motorists on new routes which are built. The government has pointed to the success of opening up Britain’s water to private investment in 1989 in order to revamp the nation’s Victorian drainage infrastructure, and claims that a similar situation would transpire with roads. But whenever the issue of opening up natural monopolies to the private sector arises, it usually provokes emotional reactions – and not without due cause.
Drivers would be forgiven for expecting the worst. After all, the selling off of Britain’s energy and rail isn’t exactly considered a huge triumph for consumers. Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists said: "British drivers simply don’t trust the government to come up with a new way of paying for roads that will not lead to increased costs in the long run.
Drivers already pay far more in taxes and duties than they get back in investment in new roads. New roads are safer but what is needed is the release of more existing motoring taxes as part of a long term investment plan to target pinch points and eliminate the maintenance backlog.”
The Severn Bridge – a sign of things to come?
Critics of these plans could point to the M4 Severn Crossing as a negative and expensive evidence of the private sector’s involvement in road infrastructure. The bridge is operated by Severn River Crossing PLC. To get into Wales, it now costs £6 for cars and vehicles up to nine seats, £12 for vehicles up to 17 seats and goods vehicles up to 3,500kg, rising to over £18 for heavy goods vehicles.
The cost of crossing has grown exponentially since the bridge opened in 1996, when it cost £3.60 for a car to travel into Wales. In 2011, the Welsh Affairs Committee of MPs claimed that the bridge, along with its older sister on the M48 up the river cost just £15m a year to maintain, but make over £70m in revenue.