For whom the road tolls


roadsOne result of the Comprehensive Spending Review is that there are more opportunities for private investment to provide what the government can no longer afford. One project to be cut is a proposed relief road in the Midlands, which was meant to ease pressure on a key artery linking the region with Felixtowe. However, the Department of Transport describes the scheme as unaffordable. Cue a sensible alternative – a private toll road.

It seems the government is slowly recognising the benefits of private involvement in the running of the roads. They are considering new congestion-busting schemes that involve the building of toll roads alongside existing bottlenecks. Local councils, meanwhile, have apparently seen the possibility of private companies creating new by-pass roads – sparing them the long (potentially endless) wait for Whitehall cash.

There is already a private road operating in the UK – the M6 toll road. This is the template under which new roads should be built. Currently the road network is open access and funded by general taxation, meaning that both drivers and non-drivers bear the cost of its upkeep. But the highway system is currently hugely overstretched, with congestion and road maintenance becoming a real problem for the government.

The solution is to franchise the roads to private contractors, as suggested by Nigel Hawkins in Privatization Revisited. Part of the levy raised by these companies on the motorists would then be put towards the maintenance and general upkeep of the road, ensuring that those who use the road are the ones to pay for it. This is the system used in many other European countries, so why should it be any different in the UK?

More broadly, these stories illustrate one of the benefits of public spending cuts. The private sector, which has previously been crowded out of many parts of the economy by big government, suddenly has more opportunities to provide the things that people need.