The UK Government’s planned announcement regarding road privatisation and tolling in England is a puzzling move (see trails from the Independent here, Guardian here, and BBC News here). It controls, of course, only roads in England; the building, maintenance and operation of roads in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is devolved. So this policy is not just limited in scope, but over-hyped in its rhetoric; ‘the nation’s roads’ are only roads of one part of it.
The second element is the planned funding through hypothecating a proportion of vehicle excise duty (road tax). As a solution, it will be attractive to potential operators of privatised roads as it will be a guaranteed revenue stream. But if that’s to be done, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s devolved governments should get their share too. (Should that share be calculated on the proportion of road miles in those parts of the UK, or population? That’s a technical question that matters, given the large areas of sparse population in all three parts of the UK, with a lot of not-very-heavily used roads as a result.)
The announcement to be made today is only for feasibility studies to be carried out, and actual privatisation may never happen. But the way it has been publicised suggests that no-one has aired these issues before the announcement was planned, which itself may suggest something about the role of spin and side-lining of normal policy-making under the Coalition at Westminster. Moreover, it shows a failure to think carefully about what ‘the nation’ is (England or UK?) at a time when that issue has a particular sensitivity. It’s almost as though Number 10 has bought into SNP rhetoric without noticing.