So George Osborne has decided that the money raised from Vehicle Excise Duty — “road tax” — should for the first time in 80 years be ringfenced for spending on roads, through Highways England (the recently rebranded Highways Agency). CityMetric think this sends a message telling motorists that they own the roads, and the Guardian Bike Blog is worried that it will increase the already prevalent sense of entitlement to bully other road users.
You can have your motorways
I think it’s brilliant. Osborne has “given” motorists the roads that they already own — those roads that sane people long ago stopped using with anything but a motor vehicle. And that makes it a perfect time to take back the rest of them.
This is the Highways England road network. Motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.
So if this tax sends a message it’s exactly the right one: you pay for the motorway network. Want to own the road? Bugger off to your motorway. The county A roads, borough B roads, city streets and country lanes are not yours.
By ringfencing the tax for Highways England, Osborne has made it much plainer that motoring taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs and harms that motoring accrues, and has emphasised that because streets and lanes and other lesser roads are run by the local council, motorists outside the motorway network are actually being subsidised by the rest of us.
His message fits neatly with a related one: “roads were not built for cars”. Because this tax is largely going to roads which were built for cars. The two combine to say: these motorways are the roads for cars; everywhere else you’re a guest benefiting from the generosity of local council tax payers. Motorists can take the motorways. In return, they need to start giving something back.
Sleight of hand
By giving the Highways Agency greater autonomy as Highways England and at the same time setting it up with an income stream, the worry for many is that Osborne is creating the conditions for a motorway building boom that can’t be traced back to government decisions when it inevitably proves to be extremely unpopular.
But I’m not sure we should be so worried.
It costs Highways England just under £4 billion per year to run the motorway network, including the small number of capital projects — junction rebuilds, carriageway widening, new technology, and the rare new length of road.
Very neatly, the road tax is expected to raise just a little over £4 billion per year for Highways England.
Previously motorists paid £4 billion into the Treasury, and £4 billion found its way from the Treasury to Highways England via the Department for Transport. Now motorists will pay £4 billion into Highways England. There’s a bit less democratic oversight but otherwise nothing has changed.
It seems unlikely that Highways England would be able to greatly increase the scale of its road building activity without either borrowing money or, if a chancellor is feeling brave, receiving additional specific grants — either of which would further emphasise the extent to which motorists fail to cover their costs, the expense of road construction, and look embarrassing when repeatedly referred to in the inevitable backlash.
The clever thing Osborne has done, though, is delay the official introduction of this system until 2021. And even then it will take time for the new system to get embedded. So it will probably be a decade before those petrolheads expecting Osborne’s road tax announcement to lead to a massive road building boom realise that they’ve been had and that the tax only just covers the existing annual expenditure.
What really matters
You might have noticed that I’m not taking this thing all that seriously. I don’t think it will make much difference. Petrolhead pricks who need to dress in a metal shell to bully people will bully people regardless of whether they can cite some tax-based sense of entitlement in the sentences they attempt to string together. And a road building boom remains as dependent on the political will to be seen borrowing and spending on such unpopular projects as it ever did.
But the announcement perhaps isn’t entirely irrelevant. It creates another opportunity to make the serious point: there are some motorways for accommodating through motor traffic, and there are some streets and lanes that clearly aren’t. But at the moment most of our roads fall somewhere between the two, and aren’t fit for purpose because we’re trying to make them be too many things at once.
Osborne has decided, correctly, that motorways are for motoring. Now we need to look at the rest of our roads — the ones that belong to us all — and decide for each of them how best to make them do their job, because right now they aren’t working.