Doing nothing with our roads is no longer an option. Congestion is forecast to increase dramatically. The UK government estimates a 54% increase in delays on the network by 2035. According to research from the RAC Foundation and Institute for Fiscal Studies, the current motoring tax system is a ticking 'time-bomb'. Within two decades it is estimated that the Treasury will have an annual £13 billion hole to fill due to reduced motoring tax revenues, driven largely by fuel efficiency in cars.
The government is considering ideas to reform how England's major roads are organized and paid for. These may include some form of user charge for driving on the country's motorway and trunk road network. The public and critics have perhaps inevitably stepped up to voice concerns. With rising costs in everything from fuel to food items, it is not surprising that there's been some backlash against what is perceived to be a stealth tax.
It is perhaps worth considering the arguments in more detail. The present arrangement, where a motorist who only uses quiet country roads pays the same as someone using the M25 motorway (one of Europe's busiest), is unfair and inequitable. A user charge road has its merits. It could help fund improvements, leading to a better service for drivers, and boost economic competitiveness. It could also provide a platform for fairer motoring charges and reduce the risk of taxes having to rise on household incomes or in the form of VAT.
Research by Arup and the RAC Foundation identified that nearly one hundred road projects (which are currently sitting on the shelf waiting for funds) could be progressed if a long term stable funding settlement for England's highways is put in place. Many of these projects have strong cases, delivering more than five pounds of social and economic benefit for every pound invested.
Reforms to how roads are managed and funded would not just benefit people making journeys from 'A to B'. Changes will boost economic growth and help us to accommodate the demands of a rapidly growing population. Short term political differences should be set aside. The government must be brave and take tough decisions that are for the long term good of the country. After all, isn't that what governments are for?
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