Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, discusses possible ways of ensuring the road network of tomorrow meets the needs of commerce and individuals
There’s trouble ahead – an already stretched road network is set to reach bursting point in the years to come.
It’s not just me saying so. The predictions of doom are to be found in official figures.
While, as individuals, we have been driving less, as a nation the mileage we do is set to increase significantly. Why? Because the national population is forecast to expand 16 per cent by 2033 – with growth in areas in such as the East Midlands significantly above this – and traffic growth is predicted to rise by a third by 2025. However, more people is not the only driver of congestion. So is economic recovery.
Against this background of future demand for road space there is little or no sign of any meaningful increase in capacity.
Transport never features particularly high on the political agenda. At the general election earlier this year it barely got a mention. Even when our politicians do raise the matter of how we get people and goods from A to B they tend to concentrate on things like railways and runways, not roads; thus completely ignoring the transportation realities in Britain today.
Here are some more figures that might put what I have just said into perspective. 92 per cent of all passenger travel takes place on the road network, some of it by bus, taxi and motorbike, but the vast majority in private vehicles. A mere seven per cent of journeys are on the railways and one per cent in the air. The message this picture gives is clear: for most of the people, most of the time, the car is public transport. Train use is a niche activity and domestic plane travel is insignificant. And this is even before we mention freight movement.
While we are on the subject of statistics, let me give you a few others. For every mile travelled the average rail passenger costs the Treasury (and hence the taxpayer) 21p in the form of subsidies. For bus passengers the cost to the Chancellor is 6p per mile. Yet road users contribute a net 4p per mile.
The much vaunted and little thought out public pronouncements by many that we must expand rail services and build a hugely expensive new north-south high speed line are misguided and have little basis in financial reality.
It is also worth noting that through the taxes and charges drivers pay, they cover the costs of the damage – the so-called externalities – they cause to the country and the planet in the forms of greenhouse gas emissions and congestion. Interestingly the official analysis into high speed rail carried out by HS2 – the independent company created by the government to evaluate the scheme – concluded that the carbon savings associated with the scheme were negligible at best, thus destroying one of the key themes being used to sell the scheme to the public, i.e. its supposed green credentials.
There is one more thing that needs to be remembered about the railways – they are elitist, catering for the (relatively) wealthy. The least well off do not travel by train. The rich do and, despite what commuters might think about the high fares they pay, receive a handsome subsidy for doing so. It is not surprising that trains are often referred to as opera on wheels.
You might have read this far and concluded I am anti-rail. This is not the case. I spent a lot of my career working in the railway industry – both surface rail and the London Underground. But romanticism and fondness for trains is not a substitute for hard facts when it comes to creating a credible transport strategy for the future. And at the moment that strategy is absent, at least when it comes to the nation’s highways and byways. Earlier this year there was due to have been a national policy statement on surface transport. It never happened and there is no immediate sign that it will. What sort of message does that send out to the population about the importance placed on roads by politicians?
Learning the lesson
Given this policy vacuum, what does the RAC Foundation regard as possible ways of ensuring the road network of tomorrow meets the needs of commerce and individuals?
We might actually learn some lessons from the way the rail industry is run. It has an independent regulator; there are five-year plans that detail the funds which will be available and what is expected to be done with the money; and there is a consumer watchdog to protect the interests of passengers. Similar systems are in place for other essential services such as the water, power and telecoms industries. So why not the same for roads? Aren’t the M1, A14 et al part of an equally important utility we all rely on?
Earlier this year the RAC Foundation published a report outlining how the governance of the road network might be changed for the better. The options we listed range from the mild to the radical, starting with an enhanced Highways Agency set more arm’s length from government all the way through to a fully privatised road system in the hands of institutions or individual shareholders. The funding mechanisms for operating, maintaining and enhancing our roads include direct Whitehall grants, shadow tolling or direct user-charging – Pay as You Go motoring. Depending on the corporate status of the governing body it might also be able to borrow on the money markets, though the parlous financial state of Network Rail shows the perils of building up too much debt.
The Foundation believes there is a strong possibility the ultimate solution must involve drivers being charged a fee dependent on how far they drive and when they do it. The charges might also vary in relation to the green credentials of the vehicles. But to be clear, the Foundation sees Pay as You Go replacing the current fuel duty and VED taxation structure, not being lumped on top of it, and a large slice of the takings must be ring-fenced for road investment.
But why bother with charging at all? Most importantly, in the absence of supply side measures such as huge road building projects – something the RAC Foundation has never advocated, and the political and financial climates do not allow for – it would help limit the demand for finite road space, easing congestion (or at least stopping it get any worse).
This is controversial stuff, as the 2007 1.9 million signature petition on the Downing Street website against road pricing indicated. But there is reason to think it could work either across all roads or just the network of motorways and major A roads.
Public opinion is, however, not as rabidly against Pay as You Go as some commentators might have you believe. An Ipsos MORI survey for the Foundation revealed that just 18 per cent of people supported the basic principle of Pay as You Go on a limited basis. However, once they understood Pay as You Go was a new system of charging rather than an additional one, support mushroomed to 46 per cent with just 34 per cent opposed.
It is true negativity was much greater at the prospect of charging on all roads, but the poll does give reason to believe that if people are informed about the benefits their instinctive, knee-jerk negativity can be overcome.
It is a shame the same cannot be said about most politicians. The previous Labour administration did have Pay as You Go driving as policy, but it didn’t survive the Number 10 petition. The Tories are dead against it, which leaves only the Lib Dems as advocates of the idea, though unsurprisingly they did not make acceptance of road charging a pre-condition of their coalition deal with the Tories.
As I have said, at the far end of the spectrum of ideas about roads governance sits full privatisation. This is a dirty word to many, but it does offer several potential advantages, the most important of which – at least to the Treasury – is the huge sale value that would be raised. The Highways Agency officially values the roads under its control at £87 billion. The eventual price tag even for this relatively small part of the road network could be well in excess of this. With the government currently struggling with a large annual deficit and a spiralling national debt, a windfall of tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds is mouth-wateringly tempting.
Of course the role of the RAC Foundation is not to find ways to keep the Chancellor happy, but rather to argue for an efficient, well-funded and reasonably priced transport system, and to put forward suggestions as to how that might be achieved. It might be that much of what I have outlined is not acceptable in the court of public opinion and there is not the political will or backbone to introduce meaningful, wholesale change.
Historically – the fuel protest and the Downing Street petition apart – Britain’s 34 million drivers are the silent majority. Whilst people are quick to campaign for better schools and health care, and against hospital closures and cuts in public services, motorists do not tend to make a fuss. Now that might be because they accept congestion as “just one of those things”. If so, then so be it. But if we do not want to see worsening journey times, increased frustration and more costs lumped on businesses large and small, then something needs to be done. And at the moment nothing is.
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