The head of the RAC Foundation - the RAC's independent roads research charity - says that the English highway system can no longer be run the way it now is, as a colossal money-spinner for the Treasury. He advocates a move to "pay as you go" road use.
Stephen Glaister, a retired professor of transport and infrastructure, lays out his views in a new report, Governing and Paying for England's Roads, published last week. The document refers specifically to English roads owing to the existence of devolved government in the other kingdoms of the UK; but it notes that 84 per cent of the UK's population is in England and so are the most heavily-used parts of the road network.
Glaister sets out today's situation, in which the road system is a huge money maker for the Treasury. Road users pay £46bn each year in fuel duty and road tax, of which no more than a quarter or a third at most is spent on roads. The rest is used to fund the loss-making parts of government: proportionally, most goes on welfare and health.
This has led to a serious lack of capacity. Of the top 27 countries considered by the World Economic Forum, the UK ranks 24th for its roads (20th for rail). Considered against an average of the top 5 EU nations plus the USA, Canada and Japan, UK roads carry two and a half times as many people and twice as much freight. Motorway traffic is up 17 per cent in the last decade, but the motorway network grew by only four per cent over the same time: overall traffic is up by 11 per cent, but in total the road network has grown by on 1.5 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, studies in recent years have warned of crippling congestion as population climbs and the economy grows, though there has been a brief stay of execution owing to the recent recession.
The last government broadly accepted these warnings, but essentially did nothing about them - Glaister notes that the MPs of the Commons Transport Committee accused the then Transport minister Lord Adonis of "effectively rejecting" the most recent roads warnings. Glaister criticises Adonis' belief that new and extremely expensive high-speed rail links will seriously ease problems on the roads.
The government is able to take road users' money and divert most of it to other things, according to Glaister, because there are no rules on what level of road service must be provided and nobody in particular is responsible. The prof does accept that it's politically unrealistic to suggest that all or most of the current road revenues be spent on roads: that would equate to cuts in other departments - on top of what they are now suffering - equal to something like the entire budget of the MoD, a third of the NHS, or a fifth of the DWP. Some degree of subsidy from road revenue to other parts of government seems inevitable.
Glaister suggests that management of the road system be moved to "arm's length" from government into a powerful new body with set rules as to the level of service it has to provide, with revenues of its own raised by some system of "pay as you go" road use - tolls, road pricing, what you will. It could receive its cash straight from the Treasury under the so-called "shadow toll" system already used on PFI roads, under which builders are paid a fee for each person who uses their road.
The prof freely acknowledges that road pricing schemes considered by the government in recent times have been wildly unpopular: famously, plans for a national system were shelved after 1.8 million people signed a No.10 petition against it in December 2006. Glaister considers, rightly or wrongly, that this upswell of public opinion occurred because people thought that the new charges would be a ripoff: that they would be charged a "stealth tax" and nothing would be done to improve the roads.