Skip to main content

Roads: Private Investment

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what lessons learned from the privatisation of British Rail they will apply to any plans for increased private investment in the United Kingdom’s motorway and trunk road network.

My Lords, we are considering a number of options for the future ownership and financing of the strategic road network, looking at a greater role for private funding to provide more investment. This feasibility study is considering a wide range of possibilities, and it will be taking account of the experiences of water, electricity, telecoms and gas as well as rail and other transport sectors.

That is a rather disappointing response from the noble Earl. I was hoping for “We’ve looked at it, it’s a stupid idea, and we’re not going to do it”. What words of comfort does the noble Earl have for the motorist, the small business and the taxpayer that they are not going to have additional costs to bear if proposals to introduce further private capital to our road system come to fruition?

My Lords, the first comfort that I will give is that the feasibility study will consider the role that tolling can play, but it will not consider tolling existing capacity or road pricing. The purpose of the feasibility study is to look at how we can better run the strategic road network into the future so that investors can make long-term decisions rather than the short cycles that we are experiencing at the moment.

My Lords, will my noble friend learn two lessons from the privately designed, built, financed and operated stretch of the A1 between Alconbury and Yaxley? The first is that without that privately funded scheme—which I declare to the House I authorised—motorists on the A1 would still be bogged down in horrendous traffic jams with very little likelihood that that road would have been financed directly from the public purse. The second lesson that I hope he will learn is that when cost negotiations are taking place with the private sector they should be done with maximum vigour on behalf of the taxpayer.

My Lords, I regularly used to use the bit of road that my noble friend refers to. Particularly impressive was the rate at which the construction project went ahead. It had all the signs of an efficient process.

My Lords, given that the objective of government is to encourage the investment of private finance in the transport sector, do the alternatives include the slightly less risky idea of creating a fund into which private investors can put money to invest in a portfolio of transport projects both new and existing?

My Lords, I am not quite sure about the exact proposal that my noble friend puts forward, but we are looking at all options and I will be grateful for any input from noble Lords into possible models.

My Lords, it may well be the case that the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, authorised an effective improvement to the roads, but I am concerned that the Minister effectively told the House that pretty well everything could be covered by this initiative. For example, would it be possible that there would be designated lanes for those who paid a road toll, so that we had the equivalent of first-class passengers on rail operating on our roads? Or would it mean that a mere resurfacing of the road, or just the addition of a junction, would effectively mean that the road had been upgraded and therefore could be subject to one of these initiatives?

My Lords, the noble Lord has made just the same points as I made to my officials. The key question is: is it additional capacity or is it merely an enhancement? If it is additional capacity, we would consider tolling it, but if it was just an enhancement, perhaps that would not justify tolling. The noble Lord puts his finger on an extremely important point.

Can the Minister tell me on this Anzac day whether he knows that Sydney Harbour Bridge is a toll road? It has paid for itself probably thousands of times over, but as far as I know there is still a small toll payable. Does he not think that it is a great advantage for people to have a road that otherwise they would not have, but that the cost should not be so high that it creates a major problem, particularly for local people in meeting the toll cost?

My Lords, the Sydney Harbour Bridge may well be a successful toll bridge. The Severn Bridge is a successful bridge but it is causing a major impediment to investment in Wales. Given the other problems we face, could that be looked at afresh?

My Lords, as the Question is linked to railways, I can point out that we are electrifying to Wales.