Road builders to receive 'toll' from taxpayers: Lords report recommends increasing upper limit on axle weight for lorries

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A SCHEME to have new roads built and run by private companies is to be announced today by the Government in an effort to speed up the pounds 2bn a year national road-building programme.

The idea is that the company will build the road and then receive a set amount from the Government, a 'shadow toll', for every motorist using it. The motorist will not have to pay anything and the scheme enables the Government to attract private capital into the road-building programme.

In a separate development, a House of Lords committee report published today recommends increasing the upper limit on lorry axle weights from 38 to 44 tonnes, saying that heavier lorries would be less environmentally damaging than lighter ones.

Four new private road schemes are expected to be announced in the first batch today, which will include the 10-mile link between the A1 and the M1 around Leeds which has been provisionally costed at pounds 117m.

The Department of Transport will invite tenders for each of the schemes which, because of the risks involved to the winning concern, are likely to be higher than conventional contracts. Maintenance of the roads will be the responsibility of the builder, which, according to the British Road Federation, 'is likely to mean that roads will be built to a higher standard'.

Although the initial capital investment will be made by the private sector, the eventual cost will all be met by the Treasury. Therefore, although there is a short-term gain to the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, eventually, if many new road schemes are built in this way, the cost of road building will prove more onerous to the Treasury as private companies will need to be compensated for the risk they are taking.

Peers on the Lords Select Committee on the European Communities recognised that an increase in permitted lorry weights could make rail freight less viable and therefore recommends increasing grant levels for rail-freight users and higher charges for lorries to compensate for the environmental damage they cause.

At present, the maximum weight allowed on Britain's roads is 38 tonnes on five axles which is due to increase to 40 tonnes in 1999, but the Lords committee said a limit of 44 tonnes spread over six axles would cause less wear to the roads and, because of increased efficiency of haulage, would result in fewer lorry journeys. Currently 44-tonne loads are only allowed if the lorry is being driven to a rail-freight terminal.

The Government, which recognises the strength of public feeling against larger lorries, has opposed an increase. Robert Key, the former transport minister, told the committee of the Department's concern that increased weights could 'damage the prospects for the fledgling Channel tunnel freight operation which provides the most optimistic opportunity we have of getting freight on to rail'.

The Freight Transport Association has long campaigned for the 44-tonne limit, arguing that one in seven of the heaviest vehicle journeys would be saved on the assumption that they would each carry five tonnes more. In evidence to the committee, the Confederation of British Industry suggested there would be '480 million fewer lorry miles per annum'.

Stephen Joseph, the director of Transport 2000, the national environmental transport campaign disputed claims that heavier lorries would lead to fewer journeys.

'Freight companies will buy the heavier lorries but run them half- empty a lot of the time, wasting fuel.'

However, he said that he would back the recommendation for heavier lorries if they were confined to motorways.