Pay-as-you-drive Britain: Ministers set to approve plans to introduce tolls on motorways and A roads



13:04 GMT, 22 December 2012

Radical plans to privatise the nation’s motorways and A-roads to create new pay-as-you drive toll roads are set to be given the green light by ministers, MailOnline can reveal.

The aim is to pump new private-sector money into the nation’s crumbling road network in a bid to ease the growing gridlock log-jam at a time when cash is tight and raising taxes is politically unacceptable.

Under the Government shake-up private firms will run and manage the roads in the same way that controversial utility companies run gas and electricity supplies.

Private companies will pay to run the roads and be able in return to levy tolls on any extra capacity – such as extra lanes or stretched or road improved ‘beyond all recognition.’

A slice of road tax could be used to pay private firms to run the roads in England and Wales  topped up by the tolls on new roads (file photo)

A slice of road tax could be used to pay private firms to run the roads in England and Wales – topped up by the tolls on new roads (file photo)

A slice of road tax could be used to pay private firms to run the roads in England and Wales – topped up by the tolls on new roads.

The Treasury is keen because it could save it money – and even earn it billions from leasing lanes.

But motoring groups fear it will see already heavily taxed drivers being ‘fleeced’ even more and will act as a Trojan Horse for a wider national road-pricing scheme in future covering all roads.

The Department for Transport told the Daily Mail: ‘We said very clearly that the Prime Minister asked us to look at privatising the roads and tolling.’

It said a report sent to the Prime Minister ‘sets out our recommendations for how we deal with road infrastructure over the next 20 years.

‘We have said there will be no tolling on existing roads. As things stand that commitment lasts until 2015.’

Business leaders including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have already voiced their support for such a scheme, with firms lining up to take advantage of huge contracts worth billions of pounds a year.

David Cameron has seen a report about how the roads could change

David Cameron has seen a report about how the roads could change

The private operators will run 12,000 miles of existing motorways, dual carriageways and major roads. They could receive a ring-fenced share of the near 6billion raised each year from road tax – the tax disc officially called Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – as a ‘shadow toll’ or subsidy paid directly from the Treasury according to how many vehicles used the roads.

They will be allowed to build new roads constructed from scratch and impose tolls on them – as with the existing M6 Toll in the Midlands. But under the plans motorists will not pay tolls to use existing roads – a pledge which runs out in 2015.

Firms given long franchises or leases of ten to 20 years on sections of motorway or major dual carriageway could widen them to create additional ‘pay-as-you-go’ lanes that drivers could use to beat congestion. These are dubbed ‘Lexus lanes’ in the USA because only wealthy drivers of executive cars can afford to use them.

To counter the power of private sector operators, the plan envisages the creation of a watchdog regulator, which some have already dubbed the Office of Road Regulation or ‘OffRoad.’

Big construction and infrastructure companies – such as Costain, Balfour Beatty, Mouchel and Carillion – could run and maintain the existing roads, build new roads and add new lanes to existing highways.

They would have three potential sources of income: cash from the new toll-roads and toll-lanes they build; a potential share form the billions of pounds in road tax which the Government collects from Britain’s 33 million motorists; or a so-called ‘shadow toll’ which the Government would pay operators according to how well they run the roads and for how many vehicles.

The Transport department stressed it will not consider imposing tolls on existing roads, unless extra lanes are added. Nor will it consider an all-embracing national network of pay-as-you-drive road tolls – at least for the length of the current Parliament which ends in 2015.

Ministers have also said this is but ‘a stepping stone to any more radical reforms we may introduce’.

Treasury and Transport ministers say their ambition is to make more than the 200million of annual efficiency savings.

But AA president Edmund King fears privatisation and selective tolling will be ‘the thin end of the wedge’ that could see drivers ‘fleeced’ on top of record fuel prices and road taxes, and lead eventually to national road charging:

‘Many drivers would suspect new ownership is the thin end of the wedge leading to national road pricing.’

Edmund King fears privatisation and selective tolling will be the thin end of the wedge

Edmund King fears privatisation and selective tolling will be the thin end of the wedge

Ministers have already quietly laid the groundwork for tolls.

Motorists face fines of up to 180 under new Government ‘Trojan Horse’ legislation announced last month which also paves the way for radical electronic pay-as-you drive road-user charging on major roads across the country.

Details are set out in ‘The Road user Charging Scheme (Enforcement) (England) Regulations’ published without fanfare on Monday by the Department for Transport for consultation.

Ministers say the ‘first’ scheme to adopt the new ‘free-flow’ pay-as-you-drive tolling technology will be the Dartford Crossing across the Thames on the M25 in Essex which will be operational from October 2014 and which is inconsulting.

But the draft enforcement regulations are essentially enabling legislation for future pay-as-you-drive tolling schemes.

Under the plans being considered by ministers and first revealed by the Daily Mail in October, drivers could pay higher road tax for using motorways.

Two rates of Vehicle Excise Duty would apply – a lower tier for users of small roads and a higher charge for those driving on motorways and other major routes. Spy cameras using ANPR number-platereading technology would catch any drivers using the trunk roads without having paid up.

The idea for overhauling road tax is part of a review by officials at the Department for Transport and the Treasury which was ordered by Downing Street in March.

David Cameron said he wanted to kickstart the economy by allowing firms and investment funds to compete to build, operate and maintain motorways and trunk roads.

But AA president Edmund King added:’Drivers will question if they have to pay an access charge to use the motorways and main roads, why should they pay more to use the A14 or Severn Crossing via tolls An access charge, like a season ticket, does nothing to reduce demand.

‘Drivers don’t like paying more taxes, but our research suggests they don’t want the roads privatised or have to pay tolls and access charges.

'The Government needs to go back to the drawing board or they could end up with a poll tax on wheels.'

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: 'The Prime Minister ordered officials to search for radical solutions to the chronic problems of congestion and underinvestment we face on the roads, and that is what they are doing.

'As always the devil will be in the detail. Who would be the winners and losers under a change of regulation and would the already massive amount of tax taken from motorists rise overall

'Drivers rightly feel they are already been squeezed and any change has to deliver real benefits not just more financial misery.'

Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour's shadow roads minister said: 'As motorists struggle to cope with the busiest travel day of the year and higher costs at the fuel pumps, it is clear the priority of this out-of-touch Government is dreaming up new ways to make them pay even more.

'Less than a year ago, David Cameron clearly ruled out tolls for existing roads. Breaking that promise let-down millions of motorists – but the government definition of what is an existing road seems to be shifting.

'Today’s revelations uncover how the government is considering bringing in privately-run toll roads by stealth.

'David Cameron must now come clean and be honest with hard-pressed motorists.'