It is that time of the electoral cycle for announcements about spending in the future which will not actually be the responsibility of those in power at the moment. It is a hardy annual of pre-election periods and, as Michael Dugher, the new shadow secretary of state for transport said yesterday in parliament, the £15bn roads announcement is merely ‘an upgrade’ of past press releases rather than anything very new. There are, though, some details that have been fleshed out for the first time which even got David Cameron allowing his normally ever-so-neat locks to blow around in a mess while giving interviews in front of the Stonehenge stones which are to be relieved of the A303 traffic (a scheme that has been announced and scrapped numerous times) by a 1.3 mile tunnel.
None of this money is new and some of it is not actually available at all without some future manipulation since the spending stretches to periods beyond the current financial planning framework. Moreover, some seems to have already been spent and a big chunk is on maintenance, so the level of spending is nowhere near the £3bn implied by the statement. The best estimate is that there will be around £2bn annually available for new investment, historically an unspectacular amount that in now way justifies the sort of ‘biggest investment since the Romans’ claim which the Tories love (rail investment is at the ‘highest level since the Victorians’ presumably only because the Romans and indeed the Egyptians failed to invent them).
All the hullaballoo masks the fact that the age of the new road has, in fact, gone, killed by protestors and costs. The money is not for building extra mileage, partly because laying down new tarmac is deeply unpopular (as we are finding out in the Archers) but also because it is very expensive. So the investment is being focused on making roads ‘smarter’ – much of which is about using the hard shoulder on busy stretches of motorway and better monitoring of the network.
Labour has rightly highlighted the lack of any real substance to the announcement and highlighted the fact that spending on local roads has been reduced. Sensibly, there has been no attempt to commit the party to all the schemes in the programme, some of which are clearly pandering to the wishes of local Tory members of parliament fearing for their seats.
Indeed, rather than trying to match this level of spending the most sensible response for Labour would be to suggest that this is a pot of money that could well be used elsewhere. First, the dark secret of the motoring lobby is that traffic has barely increased since the end of the 1990s. The latest Department for Transport figures show that in the decade to the end of 2013 traffic increased by just 0.4 per cent overall – not annually. Indeed, ordinary car traffic has gone down in this period, as have HGVs, and only the mileage of light goods vehicles – partly ‘white van man’ but probably mostly Amazon and Tesco deliveries – has risen. Therefore previous projections of rising demand, which was used as the justification for previous road schemes, have been way off the mark and there is no reason to think that this will be any difference in the future. Road traffic was actually falling before the recession.
Second, it is the state of the existing roads that is a problem, not the need for expensive but largely unnecessary ‘congestion-busting’ initiatives. The number of pothole-damaged roads is increasing and it is the local authorities, whose budgets are being squeezed mercilessly, which have the task of dealing with them. Move money from capital spending to ‘pothole filling’ on local roads, and you will make motorists feel far better than promises of new road capacity hundreds of miles away from where they are ever likely to travel. Labour’s emphasis, therefore, should be on improving the existing roads, rather than promising to match spending on schemes that are not necessary.
As for the longer term, the reduction in fuel duty revenue from lower oil prices and more efficient cars, together with the gradual shift towards alternative forms of powering cars such as electricity and hydrogen, means that the days of fuel duty as a major source of revenue are numbered. The shift towards road pricing and, in particular, the start of making the public realise that it is the only long-term solution, must begin during the term of the next government. Ken Livingstone got away with it in London, and a national rollout is eventually inevitable.
Christian Wolmar, a writer and broadcaster specialising in transport, is seeking the Labour nomination for the 2016 London mayoral election. He tweets @wolmarforlondon
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.