A FAIR DEAL FOR THE MOTORIST
No lease-off to tolling
interests Our roads have been paid for many
times over by taxpayers
to tolling interests
Our roads have been paid for many times over by taxpayers
FOR WHOM THE BILL TOLLS?
THE INFRASTRUCTURE ACT, 2015
THIS ACT PAVES THE WAY FOR PRIVATISATION,
ASSET-STRIPPING, ROAD PRICING AND A DEGRADED SERVICE TO ROAD USERS IN ENGLAND.
On 12 Feb 2015, the controversial Infrastructure Bill became law. It hardly received the publicity it deserved – for instance, it was first aired in the House of Lords, and its Commons debate happened roughly in the month either side of Christmas. Where it did receive publicity, it was typically on other topics (e.g. the sell-off of the Land Registry (since dropped), fracking).
Of most concern to drivers is that the Infrastructure Act (full text) engineers big changes to the Highways Agency (HA), which is responsible for the SRN - major routes in England such as the M25 and the A1.
· The HA is to be made into a state-owned company (a ‘Go-Co’) called ‘Highways England’.
· This will incur extra costs and bureaucracy.
· A supervisory body/watchdog will be appointed, (provisionally from rail bodies with no experience of standing up for drivers).
· Tolling is enabled (Think - why would wide-ranging tolling powers be included if there was absolutely no intention to use them? Legal reference: paras 1 12-1 27, Parliamentary Explanatory Notes).
· Highways England might in time be replaced by separate (competing?) companies for different areas. Privatisation is enabled.
The PCS Union, which is opposed to the commercialisation (read: creeping privatisation?) of the HA produced a briefing with more information on the original Bill. This also notes that the HA has recently appointed two board members – one from the loss-making M6T Toll Road company, and another with expertise in rail privatisation.
Mark Dollar, convenor of PCS’s HA action group, wrote in ‘Civil Service World’:
"Instead of making our roads more efficient, the legacy we risk leaving by carving up our road network is one of inevitable disputes between private interests, and the equally inevitable tolling.
Not only would this be catastrophic for tourism, industry and other road users, it would mean curtailing freedom of movement...”
NO, PRIME MINISTER...
The Infrastructure Bill also would appear to clearly break the promise in the Coalition Agreement to rule out tolls and any preparation for tolls in this Parliament (source .GOV.UK, 23.06.11, ‘for cars on existing roads’).
The government practically swallowed the Cook Report recommendations whole. The latter spoke of “an opportunity” for local and national government to ‘build a consensus’ on tolling routes that are currently free. This rather undermines ministerial assurances that tolling existing routes (see link ref column 61) or privatisation (ref. p25) will not be on the agenda.
The Mail previously noted that “Ministers have already quietly laid the groundwork for tolls.... the draft enforcement regulations [for the M25 Dartford Crossing toll] are essentially enabling legislation for future pay-as-you-drive tolling schemes.”
TOLLING NOT POPULAR
An independent opinion poll indicates that the measures are likely to be unpopular with already over-taxed drivers. Remember that 1.8 million people signed a petition when the previous government dabbled with the tolls idea.
A longstanding concern (expressed as far back as the 1990s by the cross-party Transport Select Committee) is that tolling would force traffic off major highways like motorways (statistically our safest roads!) and onto lesser roads that are less likely to be lit, maintained or gritted. This cannot be good for road safety, especially for motorcyclists.
The wider public – including non-drivers – would also lose out as tolls would also increase delivery costs and the price of goods in shops, with a knock-on impact on inflation and public transport fares (which are linked).
HYPE - AND WHAT THEY DON’T TELL YOU...
Government assurances (seen in correspondence) are full of platitudes:
“...the reformed Highways Agency will save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years and will also be more transparent and more accountable.“...
The cross-party Transport Select Committee says that the change of status is unnecessary and that the same improvements could be made through a better management approach.
...The Government is setting up two new bodies to hold the company to account - one to protect the interests of motorists and other road users,..
One ‘new body’ is really the existing ‘Passenger Focus’ watchdog, to be renamed ‘Transport Focus’. It has already taken on an outspoken road pricing advocate as ‘adviser’, David Leibling, who was on the substantially anti-motorist GLA ‘Mayor’s Roads Task Force’. Passenger Focus is consulting groups that make money out of drivers like the AA and pro-road pricing groups like the RAC Foundation and Campaign for Better Transport (sic), CfBT being very hostile to motorists and road expansion. Other anti-car consultees include Living Streets (aka ‘The Pedestrians Association’) and Sustrans. Protecting motorists’ interests? – seems more like a ‘protection racket’?
Interestingly, for a ‘champion of the motorist’, the watchdog will not handle complaints as it does for rail passengers, for instance. Drivers receiving inadequate service will have to take complaints up first with Highways England (or similar highways company), then escalate to its Chief Executive, the Independent Complaints Assessor and the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
...and another to oversee the roads network and watch over costs and performance. This means taxpayers will get a better deal and road users will get a network that is fit for the future economic demands of this country, helping to create more jobs and support business growth...
Blah blah blah! See above comment from the Transport Select Committee. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has no experience of supervising roads. Working in the background at ORR is ‘special adviser’, Prof. Stephen Glaister, a former Ken Livingstone rail aide who promotes road pricing fanatically.
...The changes to the Highway Agency will put in place the structures, commitments and relationships to support a more ambitious infrastructure programme, and allow the strategic highways company to operate more like the best-performing infrastructure companies in other sectors...
The DfT press release bragged about ‘investment’ (without letting on about the threat of tolling). However £15 Billion sounds a lot less when you discover it’s over 6 years, and not guaranteed! Even £2.5Bn a year is peanuts compared with a tax take from drivers of over £50Bn a year, of which only around £10Bn is spent on roads. (Something like £500Bn net profit has been sweated from drivers since 1997. You might say investment has been paid for in advance.)
It will allow the Government to adopt a more strategic role in managing the road network, meaning those running the roads day-to-day can be better held to account for the services they deliver, ensuring that the roads are run responsibly and in the public interest.
How can management be “better held to account” than they are when the HA is 100% accountable now as a government agency? Especially when the government is determined to take a “permissive” approach, as hinted by the Cook Report? (Parliamentary briefing, p17).
The small print of the ‘Road Investment Strategy: Performance Specification’ (p7) however lets it slip the government’s intentions towards “business performance measures’’ (i.e. making money out of drivers? – a Treasury ambition stated in the 2012 Budget.)
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more background information on the HA (e.g. the Cook Report) and road pricing, see our home page (link below).
Four official documents are worth a look:
Commons Library summary of Infrastructure Bill developments, 2014
History of government action and proposals for the SRN
Alliance of British Drivers submission to Parliamentary Bill Committee
PCS union submission to Parliamentary Bill Committee.
There is also an independent summary of the wider points of the original Bill proposals.
Finally, some business reaction and media coverage:
Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce PR
Cambridge News coverage
Classic Car Weekly coverage.