19 Mar 2012

British roads sell-off feared

Drivers could face new tolls to use major roads under plans to hand control of parts of Britain’s network to private companies, David Cameron will announce today.

The prime minister has ordered Whitehall to investigate how a radical shake-up of Britain’s infrastructure could bring upgrades to the creaking network and bring it in line with standards of other countries.

But the plans, which could entail private firms leasing motorways and investment from sovereign wealth funds, could lead to new tolls for motorists using the roads.

Investment bank NM Rothschild has claimed that £100bn could be raised by privatising motorways.

Motoring organisations have warned the moves would be “the thin end of the wedge” that would end with national road charging and further burdens on motorists.

In a pre-budget speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Mr Cameron will say: “The problem is clear: we don’t have enough capacity in places of key demand. There’s nothing green about a traffic jam, and gridlock holds the economy back.

“So here’s what we should do. Yes, move passengers and heavy goods onto rail. But also widen pinch points, add lanes to motorways by using the hard shoulder to increase capcity and dual overcrowded A-roads.

“Road tolling is one option – but we are only considering this for new, not existing, capacity. 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.”

Big leap

But Edmund King, president of the AA, warned the plans could be as unwelcome as the privatisation of the railways. He said: “Longer term plans, procurement and five-year funding agreements would help improve efficiency.

“However there is a big leap between reform of the Highways Agency and new ownership and financing models.

“The privatisation of the railway network has hardly been a spectacular success and millions of drivers will be concerned if one of our most important and used national assets, the strategic road network, is sold off.

“The government has indicated that tolls would only apply on new capacity but many drivers would suspect new ownership is the thin end of the wedge leading to national road pricing.

“Many drivers can’t afford current fuel prices, so new charges would be a toll too far.”