Using the PFI to build socially useful projects such as schools, colleges and hospitals is one thing, and the merits or otherwise of this approach have been thoroughly debated; using it to build more roads, which even the Department of Transport itself now admits will simply encourage more traffic, is quite another and the issues this raises have yet to be aired. With the exception of the Channel tunnel rail link, road-building projects form the largest single segment of the PFI. At pounds 1.1bn, the value of road schemes already announced amounts to over twice as much as the total for hospitals.
And the method chosen for building these roads, whereby a scheme from the national programme is offered to the private sector on a design, build, finance and operate (DBFO) basis in return for payment by the Treasury of a "shadow toll" for every vehicle that uses the road, will simply mean more and more cars, noise and pollution at a time when the consensus is increasingly for traffic reduction.
It's not hard to see why DBFO is so attractive to a government short of cash yet eager to cut taxes in the run-up to a general election. It's a "buy now, pay later" way of reinvigorating a roads programme that had virtually ground to a halt. In the long term, though, it will be a huge waste of public money. A forthcoming report to be published by Transport 2000 shows that the so-called Salisbury bypass in Wiltshire will cost the taxpayer twice as much under the PFI than as a public road. And that is without attempting to put a price on the water meadow setting of Salisbury Cathedral, as painted by Constable and Turner, now due to be severed by a private route on an embankment the height of a telegraph pole.
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