(for those lucky enough to be in England)




Another article reviewed the Government’s ‘independent’ report of Nov 2011 on investment in major roads in England (‘the Cook report’).


The government’s own response was published on 24 May 2012. It is written in such awkward language that it can be interpreted in many ways. The DFT recommendations are given at the end (see below) with some questions, but here’s some context on possible developments.



Euro vision, nul points

Government assurances that they won't bring in road pricing (for cars) or prepare for same in this Parliament are looking pretty worthless.


Two pointers that the threat will arise in the next Parliament (i.e. after 2015): Firstly, they seem to be marching to an EU drumbeat, which wants a big push for road pricing from 2015/6.


Secondly, after hints from the RAC Foundation, the Treasury has been persuaded that fuel duty revenues will wane. – either through people travelling less, use of more fuel-efficient vehicles or (unlikely) the move to hyped electric vehicles. (Ironically, these would all be the result of tax-hungry or coercive government policies!)


Rather than recognise that drivers will just be a little less over-taxed, the 2012 Budget showed that the Treasury wants to find more income from drivers.

Some might easily put money on the strategy being to bring in the lorry road user charge (‘LRUC’, in England) to get road pricing working, THEN roll it out to all vehicles. (The 2014/5 timescale for the Galileo satellite matches that proposed for the LRUC).

General excuses for road pricing

The possible ‘reasons’ for wanting road pricing include:
* financing Galileo / ensuring consistent 'Trans European Networks',
* propping up declining public funds,
* avoiding having to build more capacity
* pushing drivers onto public transport to appease that lobby
* 'the environment' / carbon emissions,
* population surveillance (and control)
* selling travel data (at least at aggregate level),
* rake-offs for vendors of road pricing technology (under the guise of ‘Intelligent Transport Systems’, ITS), something also promoted by the EU.

Some think that pricing private motorists off the road would give 'more reliable' journey times to business travellers, but I'm not so sure about the gains. Particularly on main roads where large vehicles are limited to 62mph or less.



Not needed to save the planet

The EU consultation launched in August 2012 hints at making money for infrastructure - including using road pricing revenue to tempt private investors with a secured income stream.


The EU questionnaire is highly leading, hinting at a more centralised European Electronic Toll Service, where drivers are charged by distance travelled rather than for a period of time, and for ‘externalities’ such as carbon emissions.


As for the ‘need to reduce carbon emissions’, even those who accept the suspect ‘science’ should note that in May, the EU judged that Britain was well on track to meet its national target without the need for additional policies, and would probably exceed it.



Not needed to avoid ‘gridlock’

As for the ‘doom and gloom’ predictions, the DFT has been wrong before. Several commentators disagree that there will be a massive percentage growth in traffic and universal ‘gridlock’.  


Transport analyst Christian Wolmar rejects the belief of the RAC Foundation’s Prof Stephen Glaister’s that future growth demand will be mostly on roads.


“There has been no increase in road traffic in last 10 years if you look at the figures,” says Wolmar. “Some of that is to do with pricing and there has been some transfer from road to rail”. In other words, road usage may have reached its peak.

Professor Chris Nash of the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds agrees:
“There has been a marked change in trend in road use. Even before the recession, for 10 years the miles travelled per person per annum did not rise and that was markedly different from the decade before....


This probably reflects increased travel times by car as roads became more congested, population redistribution to the big cities, particularly London, and higher density living. Unless the Government went back to massive road building and building on green belt land, then this is a permanent trend,” he suggests.





The media just fell for a bland comment that the Government just accepted much of the Cook Report, and didn’t really look too deeply into the response.


Letting loose the Highways Agency as an asset developer, with due management perks, was not accepted – for now – its track record is hardly inspiring. However, there are some developments of concern:


Cook Report Recommendation 3
Ministers and the DfT should focus on a distinctive new strategic role as the champion of road users. The DfT should ensure that its specification for network performance reflects the experiences and reasonable aspirations of road users.

DFT Response
It is clearly important for the Government to represent the
interests of road users as, in the absence of a commercial relationship between drivers and the network operator, customers rely on the Government to feed back their concerns and represent their interests. However, in order to reach balanced and well informed decisions, the Government also needs to take full account of all stakeholders in the roads, including the wider community that this network serves.

We agree that there would be significant benefit from bringing a stronger customer focus to the development of both a long-term strategy for roads and the performance specification for the Highways Agency. This is not something which the Government can or should do on its own. We will need to draw on external advice to ensure that we have
a full picture of the user experience of using the network, and the elements which should be included in the performance specification.

As discussed early in this response, the
Motorists' Forum is an established group which represents a wide range of motoring interests and is close to the issues that matter to users. This Forum could therefore take on this role with an enhanced remit and perhaps a refreshed membership.

The Government response also says....
We have already started work in developing a clear evidence base on the needs of preferences of those who use road networks and how these may change in future. We will look to the
Motorists' Forum, to help us with developing this work

(which includes such topics as...

[development of] a long-term strategy for motorways and trunk roads
* long term goals (including hyped
carbon emissions)
* levers available to achieve those goals (capacity,
demand management, information, technology);
* policies for mitigation of the
adverse impacts of road traffic
* our policy on the circumstances in which it is
acceptable for users to contribute to the cost of road provision (e.g. tolling for new infrastructure);]

- plenty of ticks against the EU tick-list.


Now you don't need too much imagination to construe that if HMG appoints road pricing advocates and even anti-car fanatics as 'voice of the driver', that 'voice' might duly 'demand' that the government imposes road pricing to achieve desired sociological, 'environmental' or even 'performance' ends! 

Charging for 'new infrastructure' was just one example in the Cook report.... any money on charging for using existing roads being lined up as a solution?


Road pricing pundit Scott Wilson reckons that private investors will pressure the government to replace existing motoring taxes with tolls. Experience has shown that new toll roads by themselves are not viable, as they do not compete with ‘free roads’. For this to change, existing capacity either has to be regularly and heavily congested – or become tolled. (See article on plans for the A14 in Cambs.)





The Motorists’ Forum was a tame body set up by John Prescott, the former Labour Transport Secretary who was ideologically committed to driving people out of their cars. Hardly surprising that he set up a forum representing mainly political and commercial interests, although a minority interest (disabled drivers) was represented.


Look at the current representation – which amazingly includes a representative of an anti-motorist group,


It is fascinating to explore the interests represented on the Forum, and their track record. Some are commercial (e.g. ABI, BVRLA, FTA, SMMT) or government (e.g. DFT, TFL); and there are the controversial private company run by chief police officers (ACPO) and lobbyist forum PACTS.


None are truly representatives of grass roots drivers.





Some ‘Next Steps’ are given....please note a certain cynicism.

* DFT will defer any decision on whether and if so on what terms we would appoint a new Highways Agency Chair, until they have made progress on the feasibility study. Alan Cook’s current tenure as non-executive Chair of the Agency will end in June 2012 and DFT will make an announcement shortly about an interim appointment.

[NB Cook was duly reappointed.]

* As an interim step, a revised framework document will be put in place to enable the Highways Agency to be more autonomous with a clearer responsibility for initiating investment and operational initiatives which will shape its future.

* Identify and take forward a number of route based strategies with the Highways Agency and local stakeholders. Agree the locations with the Highways Agency by June 2012. The Highways Agency will then be responsible for setting out how it proposes to deliver this suite of route based strategies by 2013. A further programme of strategies will then be agreed for delivery.

[read: Work out which roads are prime candidates for road pricing, (e.g. part of the Trans European Network), and those that might 'compete' with current or new tolled roads?


NB The original ‘Cook Report’ (p66, p75) regards ‘route based strategies’ as an opportunity for local and national government to ‘build a consensus’ on tolling routes that are currently free. Cook envisages discussion in a local context involving local highways authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (which seem to be half-seconded from local councils).]

* Undertake a feasibility study of alternative ownership and financing options for the strategic road network. Provide a report to the Prime Minister in autumn 2012.

[read: Work out how much money can be made by sweating the assets that the public own, and who will run collection of lorry road tolls in England?]

* Set out a long term strategy for the strategic road network. (Consultation by the end of 2012).

* Set out an outcome based performance specification for the strategic road network. First version of the specification in place from the beginning of the 2013/14 financial year

* Adopt a more strategic role as champion of the road user - defining the interests of users in the performance specification and long term strategy. (taken forward in parallel with production of the strategy and performance specification.)

[read: Get tame groups to tell us what we want to hear, and find out how much private motorists need to be charged in order to push them onto public transport or deterred from travel? Alternatively use high projections for population growth to predict demand for new roads (and housing, etc). Use this information as a basis of maximising toll revenue from commercial road leasing companies?

Look at cutting speed limits to make managed motorway/major A-road travel less enjoyable. Look at potential fine revenue through siting average speed cameras (or, longer term, direct in-vehicle speed monitoring linked to a road pricing satellite)?

Plan to extend road pricing to cars - AFTER the next general election?
Arrange EU legislation, long term road pricing and lease contracts that a future government will find difficult to unpick?]



Lobbyist alert

This is not just a DFT initiative – DFT is working closely with the Treasury, who have a major financial interest in national infrastructure. Under new guidelines, measures for ‘demand management’ (which may include ‘access rationing’) are to be considered in infrastructure planning.


By pure coincidence, the Treasury ‘Infrastructure UK’ Advisory Board includes a representative of Arup, a consultancy that collaborates with RACF over promoting road pricing.


Again, by pure coincidence, a report advocating road pricing was produced by the ‘connectivity commission’ of the lobbying group, London First, the Chairman of whose Board is from Arup. One of their ‘commissioners’ is from a consulting firm linked to asset sell-offs, and another from a specialist company in ‘Intelligent Transport Systems’ – a term that covers tracking and charging technology. Then there’s an executive of Australian bank Macquarie, who own the currently loss-making M6T toll road!


This London First report also gives a plug for the ‘Cook report’.



Tracking our movements?

Another coincidence is that Sir Mark Walport has just been appointed to the Infrastructure UK - NO2ID reminds us that under the last government, he promoted widespread data sharing between government departments.


The European Commission is another party with an interest in both road pricing and population databases enabling government agencies to search across records of where we go, what we spend and whom we talk to. (See Statewatch’s ‘Digital Tsunami’ report).


Apart from the surveillance possibilities, there is the prospect of the UK government (or its licensees) looking at money-making opportunities from selling extracted data or using it for marketing purposes.



Before scowling that she did not support a freeze in fuel duty, then-Transport Secretary Justine Greening had gone on about how her Department needed to show ‘acts of love’. Sounds like drivers are just to be loved for their money – and to think that Chancellor (and Treasury boss) George Osborne actually believes that “This Government has done more to support motorists than any other”.




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