Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The public must pay up for the roads they want

Rumours that Chancellor George Osborne is planning a £50bn programme of privately funded road and housebuilding as the centrepiece to his growth strategy should set pulses racing among UK civil engineers.

Private finance is the future

However, whether or not it also sets pulses racing among potential infrastructure investors is perhaps slightly more important. The reality is that the future for UK infrastructure has to be increasingly privately financed, funded by tolls and user charges and operated outside the clutches and constraints of the public sector.

Yet sadly, to date, there has been too little policy to help it happen.

We will have to wait until the end of the month to see just what is planned alongside Osborne’s Autumn statement. But on the face of it the signs are looking positive.

It appears that government now agrees in principle that investment in infrastructure is the key to economic recovery − more specifically, private investment in infrastructure.

Because there is a huge amount of private funding waiting to invest in projects and infrastructure that deliver decent, steady, guaranteed returns over a long timescale.

“The challenge for Osborne as he rolls forward his infrastructure-backed plan for growth is how to remove the planning and policy obstacles that exist across all sectors”

And there are a huge number of potential schemes, not just in the road and housing sectors, that could leap forward given the oxygen of investment.

It is, of course, a message that the engineering profession has been championing for some time now. And as out-going ICE director general Tom Foulkes points out this week, the views of engineering professionals now seem increasingly to be not only sought by government departments but are also now acted upon.

Not lobbying but proper, professional, strategic thinking.

As a result, the Treasury and other key government departments now have a much clearer appreciation not only of what can be achieved with investment but also, critically, what stops this investment from happening.

The challenge for Osborne as he rolls forward his infrastructure-backed plan for growth is how to remove the planning and policy obstacles that exist across all sectors.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges of increasing the use of private investment will be to convince the public that they will increasingly have to pay at source for services that once were provided by the state.

Not least in roads where it will inevitably require some form of tolling to deliver the revenue returns necessary.

As NCE highlighted last week, for many that concept will be difficult to bear. But bear it and adapt to it we must.

Across the sectors of civil engineering and infrastructure we must embrace − and sell to the public − a new paradigm for delivering the once-public realm.

That decent modern infrastructure has value, must be valued and must be paid for. The days of the public sector picking up the bill are over.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (4)

  • The Government already collects over 40 billion pounds in road tax per annum, yet a small fraction is reinvested in the Highway infrastructure.

    Does anyone else agree that the money generated by road tax should be reinvested to improve the road network (and other projects such as HS2) instead of burdeoning joe public once again??

    -*Make tea not war*-

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I agree that insufficient government funds are used for transport. The local authorities are insufficiently prepared for the effects of weather although roads are probably about 5% of expenditure. It is too easy to defer and underfund maintenance.

    Road costing is a bit of a nonsense because the new roads are the most highly used. This makes them attractive as a source of revenue but considering that these roads may have densities of the order of 2-3k vehicles per lane per hour the cost relative to the traffic may be no higher than back roads that only have 2-3 vehicles per hour. It is the opld story of going for the easiest target.

    Furthermore tolling creates its own problems. They are now considering a third Dartford crossing even though the crossing is already dual 4 lane whereas the approaching M25 is only dual 3. Tolling causes congestion by stopping the traffic. In fact some lorries take several miles to reach speed again because theyu are accelerating up hill. Some are still not up to speed at the M20 junction. Tolling should be dropped or changed to numberplate recognition as for Londoin Congestion Charging or tolls in Australia.

    However roads are not the only means of transport and use of the railways, waterways and sea also need encouragement, They require less fuel and could remove some of the road congestion.

    Archie Campbell, Rochester

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I see the income form toll roads as a bottomless money pit and especially so if substantial parts of an area network are tolled as the new roads open. I think its is therefore inevitable that not only will new roads be tolled but also major parts of the exiting national network. What I do not understand is why the Government does not borrow the money itself to fund the roads. They will not only be self funding but also provide a steady central government income stream for evermore.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Governments have collected billions of pounds of public money for years and have let the UK infrstructure fall apart. The public pays in many ways already, but becuase of years of neglect the public has to pay again. We have already seen a real pinch on our income and this is set to increase. When will it end?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.