While not even the most well off can yet consider following the message passed by Christopher Lloyd to Michael J Fox, the need to use the UK’s road system is less pressing the richer you are. Former Chelsea FC investor Matthew Harding didn’t die in a pile-up on the M6, but in a helicopter, his preferred way of getting from A to B without getting caught in a West Midlands traffic jam.
But for the 99%, that mesh of tarmac highways is an unavoidable part of life. Even if you don’t drive along them or frequent the bus or coach service, your supplies mostly arrive that way. So that latest proposal to come from Young Dave and his fellow jolly good chaps, to involve outside investors in running parts of the road network, merits a closer look.
We already have outside maintainers on the national road network: those who use the Stoke-on-Trent to beyond Derby part of the A50 will be aware that this is maintained by a company called Connect A50 Ltd, or Connect Roads. So private sector involvement is not a new concept. But the A50 remains a wholly owned public asset, with just a maintenance contract.
What is being proposed is far more radical: companies will lease roads, or parcels of the road network, for an agreed term, and be responsible for maintenance and improvement. Leasing out of public infrastructure is also not a new concept: the High Speed 1 line (HS1) from London to the Channel Tunnel has been leased for a 30 year period to outside investors.
Thus far, the proposals do not include charging tolls – which is the first concern of many people, especially those who have experienced toll motorways on mainland Europe – but are vague on whether this may be allowed in the future. The idea that new roads may carry a toll charge is easy enough to understand, but will adding lanes or “managed motorways” (eg hard shoulder running) also mean tolls?
And who decides on funding levels, which may well come from revenues generated by the Road Fund Licence? Will spending on keeping that part of the road network that has not been leased out be maintained? What extra costs can motorists and hauliers expect to have to stump up when this new deal is up and running? How long will the lease periods be?
Those who major in this area will no doubt be able to think of many more questions that this jolly good new idea throws up. It sounds interesting, and those on the right will no doubt already be slavering in true Pavlovian fashion over the thought that the hated public sector could be cut back in line with their ideological imperatives. But today’s Daily Mail headline, “New Age Of Pay-To-Drive”, is what will stick.
So, Dave, let’s have some answers before you sign the network away.