Highways Agency plans not a "Trojan horse for road privatisation"

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Transport Minister Robert Goodwill could not have been more clear at Monday’s Transport Select Committee meeting: transformation of the Highways Agency into an arms length private company was not the first step to privatising the English strategic road network.

Time and time again he came back to that point, encouraged by questions from the committee and chair Louise Ellman.

“We have no plans to privatise the Highways Agency, certainly not. The decision on A14 (when Government cancelled plans for new tolled section) was very significant. The general view in this country is that people have paid for their roads through their tax discs and won’t take kindly to paying for them again. The A14 sent out a very clear signal we do not intend to invest in funding new road projects by tolls ,” he stated.

There will be exceptions, he said. The new Mersey Gateway bridge would be paid for by tolls on that bridge and the existing, presently untolled one. And the proposed lower Thames crossing would also be funded through tolls there and from the current crossings at Dartford.

But not long later he reiterated his no privatisation point: “We don’t intend to privatise the national road network”.

And again: “There is no secret plan that after the election we will do a U turn and ask people to pay for roads. The A14 sets it in stone.”

And later still: “Absolutely not. This is not a Trojan horse for privatisation. Be in no doubt, there is no secret plan.”

Goodwill was very, very definite on this point.

Legislation is about to be put before Parliament to set up the new Highways Agency company and roads investment in the Strategic Roads Network is set to soar post-2015 to £16.8bn in the years to 2021.  (Read an interview with Agency chief executive Graham Dalton here and with Department for Transport strategic roads director John Dowie here).

Overall spending or roads in this and the next Parliament will be a colossal £24bn.

There is a good reason for that Goodwill maintained.  “The fact is we have neglected our infrastructure; our classic railways, highways ad local roads and put off for too long making a decision on HS2,” he said. "We have not invested as much as we should have done."

Public sector funding is the way forward, he added. He referred to plans promoted in particular by the RAC Foundation to privately fund maintenance and investment in roads with private finance using vehicle excise duty as the revenue stream. These had been gaining ground in Westminster but have, for now, been firmly buried.

“If we were Greece I’d say that was a good idea," said Goodwill. "But the UK can borrow money at competitive rates. Right now we have allocated a substantial budget and can deliver the projects in the pipeline. It’s the cost effective way of doing things. And if you look at PFI, I don’t necessarily think that has covered itself in glory."

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