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.

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge