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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.