Leading article: A price will have to be paid for better roads

Related Topics

In choosing to open Budget week with a major speech on the country's infrastructure, the Prime Minister was positioning himself as much in the political, as in the economic, arena. A speech replete with references to the UK's great civil engineering tradition and commitments to long-term projects will make it that much more difficult for Ed Miliband, when he stands up to respond to the Chancellor's Budget on Wednesday, to level accusations about the Government's lack of vision, neglect of job creation and disregard of growth. To this extent, it was a shrewd pre-emptive strike.

But in drawing attention, not before time, to the way in which successive governments have allowed our infrastructure to fall behind that of many other countries, David Cameron only underlined the distance that must be travelled between aspiration and achievement. Moving from a mindset of make-do and mend to one of long-term planning and investment will require an enormous change, and as much political will.

If, by focusing on roads and the congestion that costs an estimated £7bn a year, Mr Cameron hoped he was starting with one of the least controversial areas, he may have another think coming. The UK's motorists are among the most heavily taxed in the industrialised world, what with petrol duty and the requirement to buy an annual tax disc, and they will mount fierce opposition to anything that makes them contribute more to the Exchequer. Road tolls are particularly disliked, not just as an additional cost, but because they suggest decent roads could become the preserve of the rich.

To be fair, Mr Cameron went out of his way yesterday to stress that government plans to lease trunk roads and motorways to the private sector would not amount to "mass tolling". Private companies, he said, would be able to charge only for new, not improved, roads. And the dire state of the roads, combined with the dire state of the economy, means that new avenues do need to be explored. Inviting private concerns to bid for fixed-term leases has to be the best of the limited options. Britons who drive enviously along well-maintained French roads, and pay to use French motorways, must acknowledge that we have a successful example of how private money can be harnessed to road building practically on our doorstep.

At the same time, there must be caveats. Britain is not France. Charging tolls for motorways would risk diverting heavy traffic on to inadequate secondary roads. Charging is reasonable only when there is a viable alternative – which is why Mr Cameron's distinction between new roads (which could be charged for) and improved roads (which could not) needs to be maintained. And while as much freight as possible must be switched to rail, much will still have to travel by road, and any spread of charging could raise costs across the economy. It has also to be recognised that ponderous UK planning procedures are as much of a drag on road improvements in many parts of Britain as is any shortage of public funds.

In looking for new ways to fund roads, the Government has also to recognise the bad name that privatisation has acquired. Water – the example Mr Cameron cited most yesterday – may be more cost-effective than some. But in other privatised utilities, high tariffs and complex pricing structures have made it hard for consumers to save money, while the private finance initiative has left hospitals and schools with mortgage debts that will be a burden on their finances for years to come.

The Government should forge ahead with road leasing. The UK's motorists badly need better roads, as does the economy as a whole. If ministers are to convince a sceptical public, though, they must devise a regulatory regime that avoids perverse incentives and demonstrate that they have learnt from past governments' mistakes.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas