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Roads to Nowhere

Private roads find few friends

Sian Berry's picture

7 January 2013: The lack of an update today shows that, outside Downing Street, plans to build new roads with private funds have very little support.

Coalition mid-term press conference - BBC screenshotThis afternoon's Government Mid-Term Review was expected to contain a renewed commitment to completing the Government’s feasibility study into finding private finance for new road building. However, there is no mention of it in the final document, and precious little on transport at all, despite briefing at the weekend that it would be a key policy area.

This strongly suggests the policy is in serious trouble, as it is now more than nine months since David Cameron first pushed the idea at a CBI conference in March 2012.

We predicted back in August that there would be problems with each of the options floated, highlighting that every private funding option - from PFI-style shadow tolls to converting part of VED into a motorway access charge - carried either high risks for investors or high costs for the public purse. Since then we’ve been proved almost completely right in our predictions, with pension funds going cold on the construction risks of new builds, and motoring organisations like the AA condemning plans to charge separately for motorways as a 'poll tax on wheels'.

The FT also reported at the weekend that ministers and civil servants are aware of these problems too, saying: "Behind the scenes concerns have been raised by Department for Transport civil servants and ministers while the Liberal Democrats have also refused to back the idea wholeheartedly."

So it seems that the Government remains very far from a practical way of putting this policy in place and that almost no-one outside of Downing Street itself supports these plans at all. In response to the coalition announcement today, our Chief Executive Stephen Joseph points out how the focus on pushing this policy through has ignored the real transport problems facing people, such as potholes in roads, cuts to buses and rail fare increases.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that the idea of building new roads with private finance does not come from the DfT or from transport policy at all. It comes from the Treasury’s desire to put money into big construction projects without affecting the country’s balance sheet. In pure transport terms this policy isn’t needed; even if you’re following outdated ‘predict and provide’ principles. Traffic is not getting heavier in the UK, and the trend towards flat or declining traffic gives no incentive for people to support a policy that might make them pay more to use their cars.

Larry Elliot in today’s Guardian outlines succinctly how each option for road privatisation has run aground, and gives the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Transport Secretary a road infrastructure policy they could profitably follow instead - using evidence from the USA to show that road repairs have a much better stimulus effect on jobs than big flagship projects.

To help us persuade the Government to stop trying to work its way through the mess of private road building for good, please continue to sign and share our letter to the Prime Minister: http://bettertransport.org.uk/take_action/private-roads