Government signals biggest disaster ever for Britain’s roads – privatisation

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.

21 thoughts on “Government signals biggest disaster ever for Britain’s roads – privatisation

  1. beastrabban

    Fascinating and depressing at the same time, Mike. Here’s a few additional points on the sell-off:

    1) The issue was discussed years ago, back in the late 1980s or very early 1990s. History Today ran an article on the 18th century toll roads and the construction of the modern road system in the 19th century. They concluded that the toll roads were abolished because they actually hindered the expansion of the road network, raising costs on the movement of goods and people that went against Liberal policies of free trade.

    2). The road lobby does have a very strong voice in the formation of government transport policy. A major donor to the Conservative part was the hauliers. Hence the conservative sponsored protests when the Labour party raised the price of petrol all those years ago. It was also due to the influence of the then Conservative minister for transport that so many railway stations were closed by Dr. Beeching. The transport minister for time had extensive connections to the motor industry, and was committed to the construction of the motorways. See Ian Hislop’s history of the railways, if it’s ever repeated again.

    3. Ah, the privatised rail network! Yes, it’s much more expensive than it was when it was fully nationalised. It was also much less efficient. I don’t know what it’s like now, but I can remember talking to an engineer for the railways, who was very bitter about inefficiency and bloody chaos resulting from its privatisation. According to him, just before it was privatised by Major British rail were working under a project called Operating For Quality – OFQ for short. You can guess how it was memorised. He claimed that it was then at its most efficient than any time since it was nationalised. This was immediately destroyed when Major sold it off.

    When I say ‘bloody chaos’, I mean just that. You may remember the terrible accidents that occurred after privatisation. The engineer was very unimpressed at the way the private companies now running the network passed the buck for the accident from one to the other, so that it was several years before the victims and their families saw anything like compensation. The companies’ shoddy performance compared very badly with the way such accident were handled when the railway was a national possession. The policy then was that if there was an accident, British Rail would take responsibility and then try to improve the system so that it didn’t recur. Unlike the situation after privatisation, where the different companies blamed each other.

    4. A lot of the European countries have also sold off their motorways. These have been bought by the Chinese. When privatisation was first mooted a few years ago, one of the Russian papers chortled that it would mean the collapse of British capitalism and the collapse of Jeremy Clarkson through his internal dialectal contradictions. (Ho ho, post-Marxist Joke! We make funny, yo!)

    1. Dee Tilbury

      I just read your story on here. I have to say the only reason Australia spends more on their roads is because a majority of them are handed out to companies owned by singapore and we in Australia have to pay tolls for them. In vic for a 5km section of major highway we have to pay $14.90 per day, even if only travelling on that bit of road ONCE. Keep your roads government owned, you will all be better off.

    1. beastrabban

      Very much so, Smiling Carcass. The argument trotted out by the Tories and the Right is that British policy is based on experiment and experience, rather than the Continental approach which is based on rational extrapolation from first principles. In fact all of the private enterprise policies adopted by successive administrations since Thatcher are highly dogmatic and very much driven by ideology.

  2. hilary772013

    Thank You! for the history lesson beastrabban, it was very enlightening & interesting. The Tories have a lot to answer for then as now & do not appear to be stopping their privatisation roll out any time next one is well and truly in their sights.. the NHS.

  3. Thomas M

    Only the rich will be able to have unchoked roads. Aren’t the politicians worried about being slung out by the angry voters?

    1. Dee Tilbury

      Yes Denise most major highways here in Australia are privately owned by singapore, an we have to pay to use these roads see my comment just made

  4. beastrabban

    Thanks, Hilary. I’m glad you found it so.

    Regarding your comment, Mike, about the Tories believing that the majority of people will be so disillusioned with politics, that they won’t sling them out, I hard something very, very much like that at a meeting of the local Fabian Society I once attended. The speaker was a member of the NUJ. They were talking about the increasing threat to democracy and democratic debate by the concentration of the press in the hands of a very few press barons, like Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell. They also believed that the Tories were deliberately encouraging public apathy to stop opposition. This was back in about 1988. We’ve come some way since then, but despite it sounding like a classic Conspiracy Theory, I think it’s right.

    Voter apathy is also a product of the abandonment of the parties’ traditional reliance on funding from a mass membership. There was an article in Lobster a few years ago about how the change to funding from wealthy donors had resulted in a drastic dwindling of party political activism in America. Over there, there are mostly only one or two activists for a political party in a state.

    The end point of this will probably be the end of mass politics, and the creation of a managerial elite, whose members are co-opted through industry, rather than the party political organisations. It’ll be back to the 18th century, which would probably suit some of the very reactionary figures in parts of the Conservative party.

  5. Paul Delaney

    ” It may also signal the arrival of tolls on the major roads “.
    That is so very true. I travel up and down all of the major motorways and have seen the row upon row of new gantries over the lanes, all sporting Gatso’s and ANPR cameras. The work signs, by the highways agency proudly announce that they are making the roads safer, but don’t mention how.
    I wondered for a while why they should put so many cameras and ” Active Traffic Management” on stretches of motorway, usually dead straight, when for years there have never been any hold ups or delays on these straight sections, until they put the ” Active Traffic Management ” systems there.
    My suspicions are that they have put the cameras there to capture number plates and send bills to the driver/owner of the vehicle for their use of the motorway.
    Does away with Toll Booths and allows the traffic to stream by nicely whilst printing your Toll Ticket. I reckon they have already been trailing the system, slowing traffic down intentionally to 40MPH, when there is absolutely no obstructions or need for speed restrictions, just to see if they can recognise 100% of the number plates that pass the cameras.

    Strangely enough, talking about safety,,, when they finished the stretch on the M6 South, just before Birmingham, they made a lovely job of resurfacing the hard shoulder, but left the main carriageway like a pot holed farm track. Safety my A£$E..

    1. hilary772013

      We have had to travel up and down the motorway on a very regular basis since January and need to use three different motorways reach our destination and what you say is correct the flashing warning signs to slow you down and there is nothing at all, no reason for them being on. At first we thought there had been an accident & they forgot to turn the signs off but it is happening too regular for it to be that. We where only discussing this subject the other week as to what is going on, your take on it, is food for thought.. we live in the north of england

  6. Miles Fan

    There’s no guarantee that a change in government would bring about a reversal of policies like these if implemented. The Labour Party has shown a total lack of interest and willingness to reverse any policies bought about to the detriment of the country by the present government. Virtually any and all changes made by Cameron, Osborne and co. have been just tacitly accepted by the current Labour leadership and left to become, by default, Labour policy.

    1. Mike Sivier

      Have to admit I’m very disappointed with the Labour leadership’s lack of backbone. It does NOT represent the opinions of the mass of the membership, in my opinion.

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  8. Joanne Blake

    So if the roads are owned by the road tax payers and this is theft, arent they also committing fraud? If they dont own it it is fraudulent to sell it. is there anything they wont stoop to. They are destroying this country and its people.

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