The Road to Road Privatisation


In the furore of the upcoming election you will almost certainly have missed a small press announcement concerning the Highways Agency (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/driving-forward-a-new-era-for-englands-major-roads). The Highways Agency doesn’t exist anymore. Highways England is a new state-owned company which directly replaces the Highways Agency.

Many would argue that the highways Agency hasn’t done a good job in the last few years and that the roads are in a poor state with pot-holes and worn-out road-markings, and they are. That’s not because the Highways Agency has done a bad job, though. It’s because it’s been starved of funding and told to only fix things that have actually failed. According to the government we all have to tighten our belts and while it’s okay to spend £42.6Bn on a railway to get people into London 20 minutes faster (Railways: HS2 Phase 1 – Parliament) there is no money to repair the roads.

So let’s ask an interesting question. If there’s no money to repair the roads, why spend money transferring from a executive government agency to a separate company?

The answer may lie in what happened after 1994 when the railways were privatised by the Conservative Government of John Major and the maintenance of the infrastructure was handed to a newly-spawned company called Railtrack (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railtrack).

Railtrack allowed the government to take an expensive maintenance budget, turn it into a listed company and float it on the stock exchange. Railtrack was given a five-year funding plan to maintain the railway infrastructure, but quickly realised there wasn’t enough money because the infrastructure was already run down and under-maintained, so they switched from doing planned maintenance to break-and-fix.

Does this sound familiar?

After privatisation there were a series of major incidents involving large scale injuries and fatalities, (Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield)  which led to the company going into voluntary liquidation and the assets being transferred back into the state-controlled NetworkRail. Meanwhile, Railtrack investors claimed they were misled and were compensated by the government at tax-payers expense.

You won’t get everything you want, but you can probably avoid some things you really don’t want.

If a Conservative government is elected then we can expect to see Highways England auctioned off and run as a separate concern; not because it saves money, not because private industry is more efficient or effective (see Railtrack, above), and not because it’s better, but because it allows them to take the spending off the books and look like they are reducing government spending while actually shifting it elsewhere. It’s a bait-and-switch, which worked so well with Tuition Fees (http://shevdon.com/education-bait-switch).

Like the railways and the banks, the roads are too important to allow them to fail. Some things are necessary for the good of us all as a society, an economy, and a country. They are in the national interest – something the government is keen to trot out when it suits them and to ignore when it’s inconvenient. They won’t be allowed to fail because if we don’t have a working road infrastructure it would ruin our economy. For better or worse, at least for the medium term, the flow of goods and services is dependent on roads.

We will have to pay for the roads to be maintained, one way or another. We can share the cost and pay for a shared resource through general taxation, maintaining them to a standard that ensures safety, reliability, and availability, or we can hive it off to a private company which is responsible to shareholders, investors and owners, and let them decide what needs to be done – just like Railtrack.

Surely history has taught us that some things should not be sold.

Much of the political debate has been about who the next leader should be, with criticism of many of the personalities involved, but a government is not a person. It’s a body of people who agree on an approach and a philosophy to how we will do things as a country. None of the solutions on offer are perfect, but some of them are surely worse than others.

If you live in the UK, this is the philosophical decision you will have to make in the next few weeks. You can choose not to vote, and you will have that decision made for you. Or you can vote for an approach that aligns with your beliefs and your values. You won’t get everything you want, but you can probably avoid some things that you really don’t want.

How you choose will determine what you get. Please vote. Make a difference.

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