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Why Cameron is brave to propose road tolls

At a time of record petrol prices, the PM has revived a deeply unpopular policy.

The first point to make about David Cameron's plan to "sell off" the roads is that there isn't one. No one is proposing the full-scale privatisation of Britain's motorway system. Rather, the government is examining the possibility of allowing private sector firms to manage parts of the network through a leasing scheme. But while one shouldn't overstate the radicalism, one shouldn't understate it either. The routes up for grabs represent just three per cent of the length of the country's roads, but a third of the traffic and two thirds of the heavy goods vehicle traffic. Cameron seems determined to prove that the imminent departure of Steve Hilton won't limit his capacity for blue sky thinking.

Equally eye-catching is the suggestion that private companies could introduce toll charges on the new routes they manage [existing routes will remain toll-free]. As Cameron will say in his speech on infrastructure this morning, the government, indebted to the tune of nearly £1 trillion, is determined to explore new sources of funding for our national roads. Here's the key section:

Road tolling is one option, but we are only considering this for new, not existing, capacity. For example, we're looking at how improvements to the A14 could be part-funded through tolling.

But we now need to be more ambitious. Why is it that other infrastructure - for example water - is funded by private-sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated utilities, but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?

We need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network - from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors. That's why I have 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.

That last sentence is worth noting. Many proposals never make it past the Whitehall "feasibility study". But at a time of record petrol prices, the suggestion that more cash could be squeezed out of motorists is striking enough. It was only last week that Cameron told an audience at New York University that our fuel prices would "probably make you faint".

Unsurprisingly, then, Labour is playing its favourite "squeezed middle" riff this morning. Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle has commented: "Motorists already suffering from record fuel prices now face a road charging free for all, adding to the cost of living crisis facing households up and down the country. Instead of easing the burden on drivers and boosting our stalled economy through a temporary cut in VAT, ministers look set to let private companies take over the strategic road network and charge drivers for access."

Cameron may emphasise that the tolls would not apply to existing routes but to most voters' ears it will sound like yet another tax. All the polling evidence we have suggests that the public are strongly opposed to any form of road pricing. When Tony Blair explored the policy in pre-crash 2007 an ICM poll found that 74 per cent were against road tolls and 1.8m signed a petition against them.

In these straitened times, Cameron's decision to revise this option is both surprising and brave.