Sean O'Grady: What kind of nation can't maintain its own roads?

The benefits of an efficient, fast road system accrue hugely to society as a whole

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Near where I live in south London there is a toll road. It runs past the posh public school Dulwich College, and I always thought that it was some quaint leftover from its foundation in the 17th century, and that the bloke who sits in the little booth ought to be wearing a tricorne hat and be asking for a shilling or a farthing for passage.

He doesn't. He wears an anorak and charges a quid. The last time I went past, I was being driven by a minicab driver from Kosovo. He found it odd that such a thing should still exist in Britain.

Foolishly, perhaps, he had assumed that the UK had reached such a pitch of fiscal and political sophistication that we could fund our roads through general taxation. At most points in the past 100 years he'd have been right. Now, thanks to David Cameron and Justine Greening, "modernisers" in name only, centuries of progress are being reversed.

Tolls, we are told, are the only way of paying for improvements to the highways. Really? Are our politicians so pathetically incapable of making the case for road transport alongside all the usual public favourites such as kidney machines and nursery schools?

It would seem that they are. So we have to rely on private companies to fund, imperfectly, what is, in reality, the greatest of public goods. For the benefits of an efficient, fast road system accrue hugely to society as a whole, not just to the company reps and delivery firms who pay the tolls. To people who never drive, in fact.

Faster distribution means lower shop prices for all. It means plant and machinery and building jobs waiting for spare parts, components and materials have held up for shorter times. Good roads mean more jobs, easier trade within the country and with the rest of the world.

Where public transport is difficult or expensive, good motorways mean a happier Christmas, Easter, Mothering Sunday, or any time when families want to be reunited.

"Turnpike" is the ancient, ugly name for this ancient, ugly idea; it deserves to be left in the past, and in backwaters such as Dulwich.

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