For whom the road tolls

Summary

On Cameron’s proposals for privatising roads

The first time I came across road tolls was on a visit to France with my late aunt & uncle. My uncle explained that the advantage of tolls was that all users paid for them, & that this made sense with lots of non-French lorries driving on their motorway network. He aso said that tolls were more difficult to introduce in the UK because we did not have the huge lengths of road or the tracts of land needed to make tolls work without creating huge traffic jams. I was…13 at the time.

There was much lampoonery on Puffles’ Twitterfeed when they heard the announcement late on Sunday. Was it a distraction for the Lords’ Third Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill? Will minor royals be privatised? Will constituencies be sold off to the highest bidder to save on costs of running an election? Guardian columnists were on fire over the whole thing – in particular John Harris.

Will privatised roads mean private roads?

I hope not. This was one of the things I explored in The privatisation of public places in the context of shopping centres. Roads that previously had highway rights end up becoming private property as a result of developers applying for and receiving “stopping up orders” (that ‘stop’ highways rights that had previously existed). Instead, the property becomes ‘private property’ in which the public are given a licence to ‘enjoy’ the facilities of the area so long as they don’t do anything ‘anti-social’ – which more often than not covers protesters. One of the first questions for this policy is what it will mean for highway rights.

Won’t tolls raise money from all road users rather than just UK tax payers?

This is one of the big ‘in principle’ arguments in favour of tolls. Tolls are not the only policy that ministers have been looking at. A year ago one newspaper reported on the possibility of a daily charge for non-UK lorries using UK roads. Tolls – especially ones funded and run by private companies deal with two issues: The first is the funding of road infrastructure – it nominally stays off of The Treasury’s balance sheet – at least I think it does. The second is that it deals with the issue of non-UK lorry drivers not being subject to UK road duties.

If tolls are brought in, what will UK motorists (& large interests such as the RAC, the AA & the Road Haulage Association) demand from ministers in return? The AA has already voiced concerns. Will we see a like-for-like reduction in say vehicle excise duty or on fuel taxes?

One of the things tolls would do is transfer part of the burden off of the general motorist and onto the heavier/more regular users. In one sense this makes sense – those who use more pay more. Yet one could argue that this already happens as a result of the levels of tax on fuel. Who would the cost of tolls hit the most? Supermarkets for a start. Will tolls lead to fewer more larger deliveries as firms seek to cut costs? Will it also lead to a drive towards video conferencing in some industries that require a lot of road travel from place to place?

There’s also the issue of large lorries trying to avoid the tolls & driving through villages, possibly breaching weight limits. What will be the prevention & enforcement systems? This was something that a number of commenters raised on Cambridge Evening News’ article on the prospect of the A14 becoming a toll road.

Transport corridors

One of the things that has my mind ticking over is the possibility of road and rail lines running side by side. On the A10 between Cambridge and Baldock a line when sitting in the car en route to above-mentioned relatives I’d always watch to see if the train would overtake the cars & vice-versa. Ditto as an adult on the commute – only to see if the train was doing more than 70mph. (A column of fields separated the two – little risk of cars crashing onto railways for most of the route).

Should any new roads built have to have rail lines parallel to them? Should there be road-rail freight terminals at strategic points along the line? Do any of the pre-Beeching lines (as on my favourite railway map) provide for any opportunities for new routes? Will this potential extra private funding help compensate for previous transport funding being London-centric? (Something I also covered halfway down in On national pay bargaining).

Finally, who remains accountable in all of this? In this drive for privatising and outsourcing everything, principles of accountability are, I think, at risk. With privatised roads, how will Parliament ensure that transport ministers do not relinquish their responsibilities for delivering a public service – an issue that has plagued Andrew Lansley during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Let’s see what comes out in The Budget 2012.

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One Response to For whom the road tolls

  1. Serenus Zeitblom says:

    I’ve blogged about this elsewhere – http://notesbrokensociety.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/privatising-the-roads/ – but a quick thought in response to your comments on offsetting taxes. Goods vehicle tolling is strongly constrained by European Law – the Eurovignette Directive (EC 1999/62 and subsequent amendments) which sets out maximum road charges and a methodology for calculating charges, which must be based on infrastructure costs and some limited local externalities. It also sets out minimum rates of circulation taxes (i.e. Vehicle Excise Duty in the UK) and since the UK is already close to the minima the scope for cutting VED – which doesn’t raise very much money anyway – is limited. The paradox is that lorries are what cause real wear on main roads so you should be looking to raise more from them than from cars for consistency – so there are huge constraints around toll levels which could suggest that national tolling for trunk roads isn’t really on.

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