Highways agency raises fears

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Indy Politics
WHITEHALL consideration of a new 'Highways Command' agency that would assume responsibility for Britain's 6,000 miles of motorway and trunk roads is not a prelude to privatisation, the Department of Transport insisted yesterday.

But the idea of the body, which if accepted would be the seventh 'Next Steps' agency handling transport affairs, was received with suspicion by John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman.

Motorways and trunk roads account for 4 per cent of all roads but carry 32 per cent of traffic. It is only these roads that are the responsibility of the Department of Transport, with the rest controlled by local authorities.

Among the complex questions that might require answers before such an agency was launched are whether it would administer any toll scheme that might be introduced. A government green paper on road pricing - imposing tolls or electronic monitoring of miles travelled, on grounds of the need to reduce congestion - is promised by early summer.

If the Government accepts the principle of charging for road use, it could pocket the money itself, franchise toll collections out to the private sector or dispose of the network through an outright sale.

Another question officials will have to consider is the relationship between the Highways Command and the counties, who repair trunk roads and motorways as agents for the department.

A DoT spokesman said the Highways Command would administer the operational side of the road programme but emphasised that the concept was still being examined. No decisions had been taken on whether to create the agency, still less to embark on any privatisation scheme. The department refused to comment on an estimate by Mr Prescott that drivers could pay pounds 2bn a year if tolls were introduced, calculated on a likely cost to M25 users.

Mr Prescott said the prospect of motorways and trunk roads being hived off to an agency again showed 'the Government's obsession with privatisation over common sense'. The RAC said it remained open-minded about a roads agency if it meant better maintenance and less congestion with no extra cost to the motorist. The AA called the development 'suspicious', saying that motorists already paid four times more in tax than was ploughed back into road improvements.