I did this piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free site last week.
David Cameron’s speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers, in which he proposed contracting out the maintenance and running of trunk roads to private companies, contained two themes which recur often in the political history of British roads. The first was the contentious issue of road pricing and the attempt by politicians to skirt round it. Charging for the use of a road has long antecedents in this country – notably the turnpike trusts, which in their final days were loathed for levying extortionate tolls and which led to the Rebecca riots in south Wales in the late 1830s and early 1840s. In the 1960s, when economists revived the idea of road pricing as a way of alleviating congestion, they found that Rebeccaism had left a residue of resentment against it.
Road pricing is a classically free market principle - you pay for what you use - but it was first mooted by a Labour transport minister, Barbara Castle, in the late 1960s, and rejected twenty years later by Margaret Thatcher, who feared it would prove as unpopular as the poll tax. Governments instead have followed the American example of allowing private companies to build and operate toll roads, where drivers prepared to pay a surcharge can escape the congestion on public roads. The M6 toll road was promoted on illuminated advertising panels at service stations with a picture of two indigestion pills and a tumbler of water above the words: “Eases congestion: fast, effective relief from the M6.”
It is one thing to invite motorists to relieve the dyspepsia of commuting by escaping into the private sphere; it is quite another to expect them to pay for using roads as a matter of course. Once they have coughed up for their tax disc and their fuel duty, many motorists feel they have already rendered unto Caesar. A petition on Downing Street’s e-petitions site inviting people to agree that road pricing was an “unfair tax” attracted 1.7 million signatories, and Tony Blair sent a conciliatory email to them all, reassuring them that no decision had yet been made. Road pricing, which is probably inevitable, thus tends to proceed by stealth. Downing Street insisted yesterday that its privatisation plans were not about road pricing, although the private companies will be allowed to charge tolls on any new roads they build.
The second, recurring idea in Cameron’s speech is that private investment is necessary because “we are falling behind … our competitors”. Since at least the 1950s, the idea of Britain’s traffic jams as uniquely insufferable has been a potent political metaphor, and the relative speed and modernity of European roads has been a source of national mortification. “How far are we, in this motor packed island, from the style and planning that put Sweden 26 years ahead with Stockholm’s Slussem cloverleaf or its Tegelbacken intersection?” asked The Times in 1961. It looked longingly towards Düsseldorf, the “paradise of the elevated road”.
International comparisons, though, are problematic. Congestion is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. What tips a traffic jam over from being merely tedious to intolerable, and then into, as Cameron put it, “gridlock”? Being stuck in traffic is frustratingly real; but it is also a state of mind that can alter according to your expectations about how quickly you should be going. Given the fact that Britain is a relatively small, congested island, there is at least an argument that its traffic flows reasonably well much of the time. But as in other areas of national life, the unexamined idea that we are “falling behind” other countries is being used to promote change of a specific kind: privatisation.