Pull up on the hard shoulder, David Cameron, and think again

Mar 20, 2012
Neil Clark

The toll-roads wheeze is not just a bad idea, it's bad politics - if the PM wants to keep Conservatives on side

THEY'VE flogged off the Tote, the state-owned bookmaker set up by Winston Churchill in 1928. They've sold the Channel Tunnel rail link to two Canadian pension funds. The NHS faces privatisation in all but name, some police services are to be carried out by private companies, and the Royal Mail, in state hands since its inception in 1516, is to be sold, with the taxpayer left paying for the company's pension fund liabilities.

And still the serial privatisers in the ConDem coalition aren't satisfied.

The most manically pro-privatisation government in British history - one which makes even the Thatcher governments from 1979-90 look positively social democratic - now wants to hand our motorways and 'A' roads over to private companies and foreign-owned investment funds.

"Why is it that other infrastructure - for example water - is funded by private sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated utilities, but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?" asked David Cameron as he unveiled his 'audacious' plan to allow firms, and investment funds to build, operate and maintain Britain's most important roads.

Well, there's quite a few points to make in answer to that one, Prime Minister.

First, it beggars belief that anyone would hold England's privatised water industry up as a model to be emulated. In the first ten years after privatisation, water and sewerage prices rose, in real terms, by a whopping 36 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. This year, England's privately owned water companies are hiking charges by as much as 8.2 per cent from April; in Scotland, where the water is still publicly owned, there's going to be no price rise at all, for the fourth year running.

None of this should surprise us: privately owned and operated infrastructure will always be more expensive than publicly owned and operated infrastructure for the simple reason that private companies' number one aim is to maximise profit. If we allow private firms to operate our major roads, inevitably the costs to motorists will rise.

While Cameron has said that motorists would not pay to use existing roads; firms would, under his proposals, be able to widen roads and introduce pay as-you-go lanes. It would be a short step then to national road pricing, and our roads going exactly the same ways as our privatised railways - easily the most expensive in Europe.

Cameron's plans are not only bad for motorists, but bad politics as well. As with the plan to flog off England's publicly owned forests, as with the government's Health Bill, as with the proposals for gay marriages, as with the planned sell-off of the Royal Mail, as with the relaxation of Sunday trading laws announced yesterday, this is a measure that will go down like a lead balloon with traditional Conservative voters.

There is something fundamentally un-British about charging motorists to drive on roads when they already pay road tax. Nearly 1.8m people signed a petition opposing road pricing when the idea was mooted by Tony Blair in 2007, and the last poll on the subject, taken in 2007, showed that 74 per cent of Britons opposed road pricing.

Given the frequency with which he comes up with such voter-unfriendly policies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cameron has a perverse desire to alienate his supporters and go down in history as a one-term premier. But his seemingly puzzling behaviour becomes more understandable once one appreciates that the party he leads is not actually a 'conservative' party at all.

It could more accurately be described as the Neo-Liberal Party, led by a group of free market zealots for whom privatisation and following 'market forces' trump all other considerations. The leading figures in the party (but not the grassroots members or Conservative voters) are socially and economically liberal, which is what makes them ideal coalition partners for the pro-privatisation Orange Book Liberal Democrats.
It's interesting to see how Cameron's road proposals have been reported in Tory-supporting papers like the Daily Mail and the Express. 'New Age of Pay-to-Drive: motorists face more tolls under plan to sell roads' was the Mail headline. 'Toll roads to cover Britain' exclaimed the Express, which added in its lead story that "concerns will be triggered that many of the country's roads could end up in foreign ownership".

All of this provides a tremendous opportunity for Labour. If Ed Miliband can ditch Blairism and adopt the more socially conservative but more economically left-wing 'Blue Labour' positions advocated by Professor Maurice Glasman, there could be rich electoral dividends.

There are signs that Labour is alive to the opportunity. "Motorists already suffering from record fuel prices now face a road charging free-for-all, adding to the cost of living crisis facing households up and down the country," was the verdict of Labour's transport spokesperson Maria Eagle on Cameron's latest wheeze. "Instead of easing the burden on drivers and boosting our stalled economy through a temporary cut in VAT, ministers look set to let private companies take over the strategic road network and charge drivers for access."

This followed Ed Balls, sitting on Andrew Marr's sofa on Sunday morning, commenting on the government's "experiment" to allow big stores to open for longer than six hours on Sundays this summer: "Today, on Mothering Sunday, there are mums at home with their kids because Sunday trading laws mean they can have the morning off".

The reality is David Cameron's mania for 'market solutions' is likely to push millions of Britons into the arms of the opposition. After years of 'reforms', most Britons desperately want some stability, not further 'audacious' privatisation plans and 'radical' free-market solutions.  

In short, they want a 'conservative, government, to conserve what's best about our country - the NHS, the Royal Mail, the free-to-use roads. Labour, if it plays its cards right, could be the party to deliver.

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Labour might make some political capital out of this, but they won't change anything if they get into power.  It is the EU that wants road charging to help pay for their unnecessary Galileo GPS system that would be used to track vehicles. Our government, as always, will go along with the EU's wishes, whatever colour it is. 

I don't affiliate myself to any party. I hate the term ' floating' but that's exactly the kind of voter I am.

What we need here in this country is leadership. Somebody who knows the answers and just gets on with it. In the final analysis, it is always the state that steps in to rescue any failing organization. Recently it was the banks but even more poignant, remember the wars we have been involved with during the last 100 years.

Therefore, do we not have the right to expect our fundamental services to be as efficient as it is possible to make them? Most voters don't care whether it is private or public, just do long as it works and we can afford it.

So if Labour really wants power at the next election, show some leadership. I'm sick of this Ed Miliband obsession with debating and positioning. I want plans and ideas. He's not at University anymore. He wants control of 62 million citizens. Either the roads are to be free to use, or they're not. If it puts 1p on basic rate to fix them, so be it. I for one might be pleased to pay 1p extra if I knew I wouldn't have to pay £150 to go to the airport and part of a million pound bonus to a City Fat Cat.

Brass tacks politics please. Ditch the endless ideological debate and give me a bunch of solutions please and I will probably vote for you.

 I am sick to the back teeth hearing that the country has no money for
projects in this country like new schools, roads etc. but at the drop of
a hat the same lying thieving prats can suddenly find billions of
pounds to give away to some foreign country, even those countries who
are better off than we are. This new announcement of the morons " We do
not have the money to pay for new roads so we will get the private
sector to build them and they may, if they wish, make the road a toll
road. We will hand over all major trunk roads and motorways but they
will not be allowed to make them toll roads unless there is an upgrade
done then they may be permitted to make the new lane a toll. Pray tell
me how the hell this will be policed making sure that those who didn't
pay cannot and will not use the toll lane. The only way it could be done
is to make the whole section a toll.

This actually smells
similar to that exercise carried out in the sixties where as we are all
aware that Dr Beeching was used by the then tory government to dismantle
the railways and prove that they were not required and his brief came
from the very thieving prat who had his own road building company and
used Beeching to meet his own corrupt ends. Roll forward to 2012 and we
see a similar scenario where the persons who are about to make big
thieving gains are even more thieving tory mp's.

Neil Clarke, stop talking drivel.

The Eton Commies party is not 'a  conservative party at all', that bit is right.

 Who you kiddin' to try to suggest a bunch of Corporate Socialists are ' 'free market zealots' it's quite frankly nuts & does not stand up to proper  thinking scrutiny.

Why  anyone should want to  conserve  any aspect of that vile creed of socialism that's got us into this mess is beyond sentient comprehension. 

Whatever your on stop takin' it.  

Don't be so sure Labour wouldn't have done this also. I suspect the real target here isn't road privatisation, but using pension assets for public works. Just the sort of wheeze Gordon Brown and Ed Balls used to love so much. ( They're probably kicking themselves they didn't try it. )

Of course its very bad for those with private sector pensions.