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Roads to Nowhere

Private roads not in public interest, campaigners tell PM

14 March 2013
On 14 March, Campaign for Better Transport will deliver a strong message from its supporters to Number 10 Downing Street calling on Government to drop its plans for private roads (1).

Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport said:

“Privatising the country's roads is the last thing drivers want. It will mean new charges for using their cars and chunks of their vehicle taxes being syphoned off for private profits. It makes much more sense to sort out the roads we already have. A 'fix it first' policy of mending potholes would create more jobs, supporting the economy and benefit all road users.”

In March 2012, the Prime Minister announced a feasibility study into attracting private money into roads. Originally due to report in August 2012, the study has been troubled, with publication put off several times. Research by Campaign for Better Transport has already exposed the poor value for private investors and taxpayers that each of these proposals being considered offers (2).

The campaign group is calling for the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Transport Secretary to look instead at boosting maintenance and repair, particularly on local roads (3). This policy would be also popular with drivers and businesses who regularly put repairs ahead of new roads as a priority (4).


Notes to editors

(1) Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, and Sian Berry, Roads Campaigner, will deliver a message from over 300 campaigners and supporters to Prime Minister David Cameron at 11.30 am on Thursday 14 March. Images of the campaigners will be available for media use on Thursday afternoon.

The messages being delivered to the Prime Minister read:

"I am concerned that your Government is looking for ways to privatise the road network either with toll roads, a new generation of public-private partnerships or by privatising the Highways Agency. I don’t want to see new toll roads built through the countryside and I don’t want the existing road network sold off or used to subsidise private profits at public expense. Instead I support Campaign for Better Transport’s call for private funds to be channelled to railway stations, new rail lines and tram networks, and for maintenance to be made a higher priority for public road spending. Please drop your plans for private roads, and create jobs in more constructive ways by taking up these suggestions."

(2) Since early last year, the Government has been looking for ways to attract private money into roads. Speaking at the Institute of Civil Engineers on19 March 2012, the Prime Minister said “We need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network; from sovereign wealth funds, from pension funds, from other investors. That is why I’ve asked the Department for Transport and the Treasury to carry out a feasibility study of new ownership and financing models for the national roads system and to report progress to me in the Autumn.”

Research by Campaign for Better Transport has exposed a series of problems with these proposals. These can be summarised as follows:

Tolling on individual road projects is unpopular with drivers and hauliers and has unpredictable effects on the surrounding area that can actually make conditions on local roads worse than before. M6 Toll Motorway in the West Midlands has seen significant decreases in traffic as operators have raises toll rates in an effort to maintain revenues. There has been a corresponding increase in traffic on the untolled M6, resulting in significant public expenditure to alleviate congestion. In Cambridgeshire, the latest study of using tolls to pay for a £1.3 billion A14 bypass shows that even a £2 toll would push drivers onto local roads and make congestion worse than without the new road. 

Private Finance Initiative ‘shadow tolls’:
Shadow tolls operate by government guaranteeing returns to private investors based on road use. However, as road building has shown itself to be a risky investment, the public purse will be required to cover all the risks while subsidising private profits.
See also, Briefing on the risks of toll road investment in the UK, Campaign for Better Transport, November 2011.

Replacing the Highways Agency with a private roads body funded through VED:
New roads are not the best investments for creating jobs or benefiting drivers, as shown by experience in the USA and elsewhere (A New Economic Analysis of Infrastructure Investment. US Department of the Treasury, March 2012 , Brookings Instutution, Feb 2013) Ring-fencing revenue for roads in this manner would create a bias toward new road construction at the expense of better value and more job-heavy transport projects such as maintenance.

3. Campaign for Better Transport, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Construction Products Association wrote a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Transport ahead of the 2012 Autumn Statement calling for a Road Repair Fund to address the backlog of local road maintenance.

4. A poll conducted by Auto Express in 2012 revealed that, behind fuel prices at 27%, potholes and repairs was the second highest priority for their readers, with 23.5% citing this as the issue that they would sort out first in 2013.