When it comes to government policy on roads, my constant disappointment is that no one has ever grasped the national user charging nettle. Sadly our current administration looks unlikely to break this mould.
Of course I understand that it’s a sensitive area for politicians. When broached in the past it has prompted furious outcries, rapid political back tracking and diving for cover.
I also understand that a nationally implemented charging system would be a very complex undertaking, fraught with technical challenges, risks and potential costs.
But we must overcome these fears and challenges. Biting the bullet of road user charging is the only sensible way to tackle both road congestion and the pitiful funding going into our roads.
For all the vital investment to help public transport provide a realistic alternative to car travel, our love affair with the independence the car gives us continues.
Even our new transport secretary Phillip Hammond admits to enjoying the occasional run out in his beloved Jaguar.
And while his Cabinet colleagues have vowed to walk between meetings wherever possible, the ministerial (hybrid) car is set to stay, if only to carry the red boxes.
Yet roads look set to occupy the front line of the government’s offensive against unnecessary public spending. They remain an easy target when looking for public services to cut. We have seen a major slice of the managed motorway programme lopped as part of the Chancellor’s first £6bn of cuts.
“Roads look set to occupy the front line of the government’s offensive against unnecessary public spending.”
The likelihood is that locally, possibly nationally, more cuts in road construction and maintenance budgets will follow.
However, as can be read in NCE’s roads special features this week, the roads industry is already embracing the challenges presented by the new world of public spending austerity and is delivering “more for less” at both local and national level.
We are seeing innovative procurement, innovative delivery, innovative maintenance and innovative products cutting the cost of infrastructure and reducing congestion.
But existing budgets, particularly in local authority road expenditure, are already way below the amount needed to maintain a decent network. And congestion is only set to increase.
National road user charging is the radical solution required. Certainly, it is about revenue raising, so would have to dovetail with changes to the road fund licence and fuel tax. But it is also about tackling congestion through incentives for not using certain roads at key times whenever possible. Right now is a pretty good time for both the public and the politicians to embrace this previously difficult reality.
First, the technology works, second, the revenue will be hugely welcome and third, this government can sell pretty much any radical idea with the “need to cut the deficit” card.
Besides, given the overall pain that the nation is about to suffer across the board, it is unlikely that this issue will be top of anyone’s list of complaints.