Jayne Dowle: Roadblocks ahead for PM’s ambition to get us moving

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WHEN I find myself stuck on the M62 for hours on end, I end up contemplating handing over every last penny of my life savings to get myself out of there. By the time I finally shifted into second gear the other week, I was fantasising about hiring a helicopter. But that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to pay for the privilege every day.

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get from A to B and discovering that the road simply isn’t up to it. If you’ve tried to reach Lancashire from Yorkshire recently, you will find a series of 50mph zones. The Highways Agency is up to something, obviously. We moan about congestion, but then when something is being done about it, and we’re stuck waiting for them to get on with it, we moan even more.

So it was something of a surprise – or then again, perhaps not, with a stinging Budget to justify – to find the Prime Minister making a major speech full of his “vision” about how to get Britain moving again. He reckons that the country loses £7bn a year because of road congestion. And the previous Labour government built only 25 miles of new motorways. So in his best “something must be done” voice, and invoking the spirit of Brunel, he unveiled his plans to transform our transport infrastructure.

And this is where we hit a political cul-de-sac. You might argue that yet another policy U-turn won’t make that much difference, but it’s going to look very bad for the Prime Minister if he is forced to go back on his early promise to keep tolls off existing motorways. This approach leaves him somewhat short of cash. Before he makes any rash decisions, he needs to think about the widest implications of his grand ambition.

Without unpicking every brain-aching detail of every possible financial model, it is clear that improvements, and indeed, new roads and motorways, won’t pay for themselves. With the public coffers empty, this money has to come from somewhere. The proposals as unveiled seem to be an uneasy piecemeal of allowing tolls on new roads, and leasing sections of existing roads to the private sector, which will then charge users for the privilege. It hardly seems approaching the level of large-scale financial investment required to deliver such a lofty scheme.

There are already roads we pay to use. There is the congestion charge in London, for a start. And it costs to use certain bridges – such as the Dartford Crossing – and sections of the motorway like the M6 toll road in the Midlands, for example. But these are specific points, and motorists can choose to avoid them if they wish, by leaving the car outside central London for example, or clogging up the roads that surround the M6 toll.

Ha, that’s another thing the Prime Minister needs to factor in. And this is where I do wonder if he ever drives a car himself? It is all very well building a brand spanking new road, but motorists are already economically beleaguered, what with the cost of fuel, road tax, vehicle excise duty and motor insurance.

If we can find a way to avoid putting our hand in our pocket to pay, we will. You can’t just build one stretch of road, ask money for it, and not expect its existence to impact upon all the others. What we don’t want is a showcase scenario; fantastic new stretches the envy of the world, surrounded by beeping horns and congestion.

He could be at risk of creating a network of white elephants no-one wants to ride on. Not the kind of legacy any PM wants to leave. And the whole idea of finance does beg a very massive question; what are our motoring taxes paying for, if it isn’t the very roads that we use for our cars, and trucks and buses?

Being asked to find even more cash could finally push the motoring lobby over the edge, and give voters further reason for frustration as the cost of driving spirals ever further out of control.

And there is another, less obvious issue that should not, must not, be ignored – the simple concept of mobility. The cost of getting in a car is already trapping people in their own towns, in their own villages, in their own homes even.

I know young people who can’t afford to take a job in a city even 20 miles away from home because they simply cannot find the money for petrol and parking.

How can the Prime Minister bang on about new roads, without thinking in wider terms about how ordinary people go about their business, travel to work, to go shopping, and to collect their children from school?

We all know that with public transport in the state – and at the cost – it is, the means of choice for most people is the motor vehicle. I see hazards ahead. If he doesn’t join up the dots with this one, he really is on a road to nowhere.