Damien Phillips is a writer and public affairs professional.
The United Kingdom has an abysmal record when it comes to infrastructure. Time and again, major projects of strategic importance are kicked into the long grass by politicians more interested in electoral tactics than our long-term prosperity.
We can see this tendency in HS2, wildly over-budget and already being pared back. Likewise with the interminable debate over urgently-needed extra airport capacity. There is no sign of ‘Boris Island’ now that the man himself is actually Prime Minister and could make it happen.
Following the Spring Statement, Rishi Sunak has added road pricing to this unhappy list. Despite some promising early reports, the Chancellor has ducked the opportunity to transform how drivers are taxed and put our highways on a secure and sustainable financial footing.
Whilst a small cut in Fuel Duty will doubtless be welcomed by motorists, it will do nothing to remedy the state of our poorly-maintained road network. No fewer than nine drivers in ten are affected by potholes, and a similar share consider them a major safety concern.
Likewise the RAC reports that the poor state of local roads was a top concern – unsurprising, perhaps, when it is estimated that some 42,675 miles of UK roads are classed as being “in poor structural condition”.
Not only are our existing roads not good enough, but we’re also not building enough new ones. The Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that the annual cost of congestion in the UK will rise 63 percent by 2030 to £21 billion a year, and the cumulative direct and indirect cost of congestion between 2013 and 2030 will total an eye-watering £307 billion. In 2019 traffic jams cost the UK almost £7 billion, with the average driver losing 115 hours in the process (149 in London).
This situation is only going to get worse as the electric car revolution gathers speed and fewer drivers are actually filling up at the pumps. Fuel Duty raised £28 billion in 2019-20. That’s 3.3 per cent of all tax receipts, and 1.2 percent of GDP. Rather than waiting until an actual crisis and then scrambling for a solution, the Treasury urgently needs to get ahead of this.
There is a solution. Road pricing is not a new idea: congestion charging was first proposed by the Smeed Report all the way back in 1964. More recently, New Labour looked into it in 2005, with Tony Blair mentioning it in his last conference speech as leader.
One could even argue that it has a genuinely ancient pedigree. Back in 1663, Parliament set up a series of ‘Turnpike Trusts’, private organisations which managed toll-charging roads. By the mid-1800s, the UK had one of the most extensive and sophisticated private road networks in Europe.
Yet now that network, like the tramways that once cross-crossed London, is lost to the past, as decades of increasing control by central government has squeezed out such diverse initiatives in favour of a painful one-size-fits-all approach.
It can be done again. A state-of-the-art road charging system is well within Britain’s reach. But to deliver it, the Government will need to embrace a broad spectrum of reforms.
Planning laws will need to be overhauled to make it easier for private enterprises to build new roads, and regulations changed to allow them to operate as toll roads. This would replicate the system which saw private enterprise build the British railway network in Victorian period.
Next, the Government should invest in developing and rolling out the technology needed for a modern road pricing system, with motorists billed for the miles they drive (with different rates depending on route and time of day, to discourage congestion).
Simultaneously, the Treasury should prepare to scrap Fuel Duty and VAT on fuel when the switch to road pricing is made, to avoid this becoming just one more general tax heaped on hard-pressed voters.
Finally, National Highways (formerly Highways England) should have its remit expanded to be the regulator and standard-setting body for the UK’s new, twenty first-century private road network.
Other nations have proved it is doable. In Qatar, “Bluetooth systems to record vehicle journey times, tolling and automatic number plate recognition” are an integral part of a £70 billion transport modernisation programme. Their ‘QGate’ – a free flow tolling system due to be brought online later this year – could provide the basis for a ‘UKGate’.
Singapore already has one of the world’s best private road systems. When traffic is particularly bad, the price of driving goes up, similar to Uber’s surge pricing. As a result, Singapore – unlike many developed cities – doesn’t really suffer congestion!
But it isn’t resting on its laurels. Their next-generation Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) electronic road pricing network, is expected to come online in mid-2023.
And in Portugal, nearly every new highway is an Autoestradas, an electronic toll road. They’re consistently better-maintained and faster than their older, free counterparts.
So the need is pressing, and the technology is available. All that’s missing is the political will. If Britain’s road network continues to decay, ministers will have nobody to blame but themselves.