A presentation to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum by Philip Gomm
I want to start by talking about a friend of mine called Nick. He is a conscientious and loving son who enjoyed a very close relationship with his father.
For some time Nick’s father had been seriously ill and Nick was making regular journeys between East Kent and Essex to spend time at his father’s bedside.
A fortnight ago Nick received a call to say his father had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Immediately Nick jumped in the car and headed off to be with him.
Unfortunately Nick got stuck in a jam. When his father died, Nick wasn’t sitting at his bedside but sitting in nose-to-tail traffic on the M25.
It sounds melodramatic, but that is the real, human cost of years of under investment in the road network, a creaking network that will come under more pressure as the economy improves and the population grows. Even if you believe that we have reached peak car – that point at which individual car use plateaus, or indeed falls, no matter how much wealthier we get – the explosion of people on this island will conspire to make congestion worse in the future not better.
There is hope on the horizon however.
When the government announced “the most radical change to the management of our [strategic] highways in nearly half a century, and the biggest investment in improvements since the seventies” we at the RAC Foundation very much welcomed it, notwithstanding that the bulk of the cash comes not in this parliament (what’s left of it) nor even at the beginning of the next, but is back loaded towards the end of the decade.
At least the money should be guaranteed. The RAC Foundation supports the transformation of the Highways Agency into a government owned company with a long term funding settlement similar to that on the railways. But even this raises as many questions as it answers, not least the role of the road user watchdog and, perhaps more importantly, what it being described as an independent monitor.
Note the word monitor rather than regulator. I am sure all of you out there will be familiar with this – Figure 2 of the recently published document: Transforming our Strategic Roads – A summary.
It says that the watchdog and the monitor are there to scrutinise costs, protect users’ interests and advise ministers. The word advise is worth underlining. The monitor is not a formal regulator. Ministers explain this purely advisory function by saying a formal economic regulator is not as necessary as it is in some other sectors because there are no direct charges to users. No direct charges? I hear 36 million drivers vehemently disagreeing. What about the £33 billion or so they contribute each year in fuel duty and VED alone?
What we are left with is a Strategic Highways Company – or companies, for the legislation allows for more than one – that will still be solely accountable to ministers. And reading the small print, even the funding is not guaranteed as the minister reserves the right to alter the terms of the Road Investment Strategy after appropriate consultation.
I will stay with the subject of drivers’ financial contribution to the Exchequer for a moment longer. The Los Angeles Times might not be required reading in your household but if it is then you could well have seen last week’s editorial in which it was pointed out that the United States Road Trust Fund is woefully short of money. The Fund is used to pay for road infrastructure maintenance and provision. Unfortunately, while the list of projects waiting to be undertaken has grown and grown the amount available to do it with has not. The level of Federal fuel tax – the source of the fund’s funding if you like – has remained the same since 1993.
Over here we face a different problem. In theory there should be more than enough cash to pay for roads. Of the £33 billion contribution made by drivers each year only a third goes back into spending on roads. What we do not have here is the US system of hypothecation for road funds. The RAC Foundation does not necessarily believe ring fencing a proportion of the tax received is the best way forward – after all spending requirements can change year to year and the amount of money set aside from motoring taxation may or may not be enough to enough to meet the needs – however it would at least send out the right message to drivers. That is, a defined proportion of what you pay is then returned to you in kind: spent on one of our most important national assets.
Already there are many sections of the road network where there is no spare peak time capacity. There is simply no slack in the system. Ironically this is what will make – in the short term – the massive investment harder to bear for many drivers. It is rare that road works – improvement or maintenance – do not have an impact on traffic flow so for those drivers already negotiating the busiest stretches of motorway the works will potentially add to their woes.
The job of managing the works programme is made harder by the stretching of the peak time travel periods. I can testify to that.
At the weekend I made a journey around the M25, along the southern section and I got stuck in traffic. The congestion was, according to the BBC’s travel presenter, the routine Saturday morning jam. Not Monday, not Friday, but Saturday.
Given what the man on the radio said and the fact that that I had experienced similar conditions the previous week you could argue that journey time reliability was actually very good: reliably slow. You could say the fault was mine for not allowing enough time for my journey.
But that is a depressing scenario. We must halt this slide towards lower and lower expectations and get a grip on how the road network is operated, funded and developed.
The RAC Foundation backs the Highways Agency and its initiatives such as Smart Motorways and All Lane running. We believe these latest proposals offer scope for significant reform that will benefit motorists. But we do not want to see an opportunity squandered. We should regard this as only the first point on the journey of change rather than the final destination. And when people ask why is investment and change necessary then we should point out the human cost of gridlock as much as the economic one.