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Gridlock: Under Coalition plans for transport, motorways and major 'A' roads will be clear - but the roads YOU use will look like this.

Gridlock: Under Coalition plans for transport, motorways and major ‘A’ roads will be clear – but the roads YOU use will look like this.

The Highways Agency is to be privatised, according to new government plans for the biggest disaster in the history of motoring in the UK.

The agency was formed under the last full Tory government in 1994 and operates, maintains and improves (ha ha) the strategic road network – the motorways and major ‘A’ roads that take one-third of the nation’s traffic, in terms of mileage. These are your roads – you pay for them with your taxes. They do not belong to the Conservatives and selling them off is nothing less than the theft of national assets.

The change should signal an end to Vehicle Excise Duty, otherwise known as road tax – but there is no mention of this in the Coalition government’s press release, so it seems likely that the Tories in charge of this project are hoping to siphon your tax money into private hands as profit again, as was the aim with their NHS privatisation.

It may also signal the arrival of tolls on the major roads, creating a two-tier road system: The motorways and ‘A’ roads for rich people and wealthy corporations; the other roads for less wealthy private citizens and smaller firms. Of course the other roads, maintained by local councils, will go to wrack and ruin as they become more clogged with traffic and the surfaces are worn down.

The press release states that the “reforms” (ha ha) will be “tackling decades of underinvestment in roads” and will be “backed by legislation” to ensure “future governments cannot walk away from these commitments”. That’s a mistake – no government may be tied by the decisions of its predecessor and the Coalition knows this. If Labour gets in, it could reverse everything.

The Coalition wants to make the Highways Agency an attractive prize for private investors, which is why it is providing – out of your tax money – “additional funding of £500 million for electric vehicles and £12 billion for road maintenance and resurfacing”.

(Chris Davies: Think how many hospitals you could build for £12.5 billion… Oh, but no – this is money for rich people so you couldn’t possibly contemplate putting it to good use!)

In order to sweeten the deal for future shareholders, the press release says “motorways and trunk roads will get extra lanes, smoother, quieter surfaces, improved junctions and new sections in key areas under the plan published today (16 July 2013) by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin”.

The £28 billion of total investment – £28 billion in a time of austerity that THEY have forced on US! Michael Meacher was right when he wrote “amazing how austerity is irrelevant when the government wants it to be” – includes “a trebling of funding for motorways and major A-roads… the biggest ever upgrade of the existing network.

“The focus will be on cutting congestion and minimising the environmental impact of roads, including an extra £500 million to make Britain a world leader in electric vehicle technology,” the press release says. The congestion will go onto the network of lesser ‘A’ roads, ‘B’ roads and the rest. Result: You will be late for work.

The release foolishly adds: “These measures complement record investment in rail” – an own-goal, considering the railways were sold off in the 1990s and cost the taxpayer more money now, in real terms, than we were paying for them then.

The government’s new command paper, ‘Action for roads’ details plans to turn the Highways Agency into a publicly-owned company with six-year funding certainty for capital projects and maintenance – underpinned by legislation “so future governments cannot walk away from these commitments”. This is impossible to guarantee. Why should a future government not simply repeal any such legislation?

“It is estimated that the reforms could save £600 million for the taxpayer.” Which taxpayer? The taxpayer having to pay road tax for improvements to routes s/he can no longer afford to use? The taxpayer having to use increasingly run-down minor roads to get about and having to pay more in Council Tax for repairs? The taxpayer in danger of losing their job because of lateness caused by increased congestion on those minor roads? Or the taxpayer who just had a £100,000 tax cut on their more-than-£1 million-a-year earnings?

You’d have to be really stupid to say this was a good idea.

“Today’s changes will bring an end to the short-term thinking that has blighted investment in England’s roads so that we can deliver the infrastructure our economy needs. Backed by the government’s £28 billion commitment, they will give us a road network fit for the 21st century and beyond,” said Mr McLoughlin.

“Our major roads are vital to the prosperity of our nation, connecting people to jobs and businesses to markets. They carry a third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight traffic but in recent decades we have failed to invest properly in them.

“That underinvestment has seen us fall behind many of our economic competitors. Since 1990, France has built more motorway miles than exist on our entire network, while Canada, Japan and Australia all spend four times more on their roads than we do.”

All of this reminds me very much of Ben Elton’s novel, Gridlock. Do you remember it? Here’s the reason, quoted from The Politics of Mobility: Transport, the Environment, and Public Policy by Geoff Vigar, page 175:

“The Minister of Transport, Digby Parkhurst, is portrayed as being in the pocket of the roads lobby, and a mythical ‘Global Motors Corporation’ in particular. This fictional association reflects a general view amongst many outside the transport policy world that the roads lobby has a relationship with central government transport officials that borders on the classic corporatist ‘iron triangles’ to be found in policy-making in the United States. This view is supported by various accounts of UK transport planning in the 1970s and 1980s where the activities of a roads lobby are held to be a critical factor in explaining transport policy (Hamer, 1987; Tyme, 1978; Wardroper, 1981).”

It seems, with the Tories back in power, those bad old days are back.

The Department for Transport intends to consult on these proposals in autumn 2013. For your own good, oppose them.