Tolling on an upgraded A14 through Cambridgeshire is looking increasingly likely – but could the trunk road now be handed over to the private sector?
That’s the suggestion of Prime Minister David Cameron, who used a keynote speech yesterday to announce parts of the highway network could be handed over to companies on long leases, with permission being granted for charging for motoring on new routes.
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This arrangement could bankroll much-needed improvements to the A14, which councils argue should include widening and a new route, probably funded by tolling, with a free route for local traffic.
Recent estimates suggest this could cost up to £800 million, but a £1.3 billion upgrade was scrapped in 2010 when it was branded “unaffordable”.
Speaking to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Mr Cameron said: “The problem’s clear: we don’t have enough capacity in places of key demand.
“There’s nothing green about a traffic jam – and gridlock holds the economy back.
“So here’s what we should do. Yes, move passengers and heavy goods on to rail. But also widen pinch points, add lanes to motorways by using the hard shoulder to increase capacity and dual overcrowded A-roads.
“The massive programme announced during last year’s growth review made a good start. But how do we do more, when, frankly, there isn’t enough money?
“Road tolling is one option – but we are only considering this for new, not existing, capacity.
“But we now need to be more ambitious. Why is it that other infrastructure – for example water – is funded by private sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated utilities but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?
“We need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network – from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other investors.
“That’s why I have asked the Department for Transport and the Treasury to carry out a feasibility study of new ownership and financing models for the national roads system and to report progress to me in the autumn.”
Cllr Steve Criswell, Cambridgeshire County Council’s cabinet member for community infrastructure, welcomed the announcement.
He said: “Securing improvements to the A14 is a top priority for us and should be for the country as a whole. Unblocking the A14 will improve safety and benefit the local, national and international economy.
“Cambridgeshire County Council with partners has campaigned strongly for improvements to be brought forward and we are clear that the road needs extra capacity.
“The use of tolling has already been suggested by Government and the Prime Minister’s announcement is an evolution of this thinking.
“With the current national economic situation, we are clear that some form of tolling is likely to be needed if a major improvement is to be delivered as soon as possible.
“We are talking to ministers about making sure alternative local routes are available if any tolling is introduced.
“We want to ensure Cambridgeshire’s communities and businesses can continue to thrive and that we can alleviate the problems of safety and delay that the A14 in its current state has caused for too long.”
John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, opposes tolling but said it was good the Prime Minister had recognised Britain’s infrastructure was not fit for purpose.
Mr Bridge said: “He did make the point that road tolling is just one option, which means there are other options which have to be looked at as well, and we need to have a debate about the way forward.
“The road user already pays £45 billion in taxes to the Exchequer and only gets back £9 billion to improve the infrastructure, so people need to understand that the Government uses money raised from motorists for other things and we need to have a debate about whether this is an appropriate way for money to continue to be raised for not just roads but other purposes too.
“What we don’t want to happen is for the A14 upgrade to get caught up in a national debate about the rights and wrongs of road tolling.”
Matthew Hancock, the Conservative MP for West Suffolk and a former chief of staff to Chancellor George Osborne, compared the roads proposal to water privatisation when he went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He said: “Over the past decade or so, one of the few bills that hasn’t gone up as sharply as council tax and other taxes has been water bills.”
He added: “It’s very clear that no-one is talking about tolls on existing roads.
“What people are talking about is getting new roads built by having tolls on them, and then also trying to get private companies to do more to improve existing roads.”