I have been interested that some of you are keen defenders of nationalised roads, supplied free at the point of use, but at huge cost if you add up all the motoring charges and taxes we do pay nonetheless. Road supply is used as one of the main reasons for VED and petrol tax, yet they collect far more in taxes than they spend on the roads.
To me, our road system has all the characteristics of badly run nationalised industry monopolies. They are dear to the taxpayers that pay for them. They supply too little roadspace, artificially rationing it. They tell us it is our fault for wanting to travel too much, or wanting to travel in the wrong way so that their roads are regularly congested. They delight in making using the roadspace more difficult, with endless state interventions with the carriageways, signs, controls, rules and regulations. They take special pleasure in working out new complex rules, then fining anyone who has not grasped them or failed to see the changes in time. It is common for the public sector to say there is no point in adding capacity because people will want to fill it up. I am glad they do not make the same argument about health service capacity.
The problem with nationalised monopoly roads is summed up for me in the case of the Hammersmith flyover. This crucial piece of infrastructure was built in 1961, fifty years ago. It took 90,000 vehicles a day. It is the main route into London for those coming from the M4, A4, M3, A 316 and other western routes via the North and South Circulars. It is the main way out to all those primary roads, and to one of the world’s largest airports, Heathrow. That makes it the prime gateway to London and the UK for many visitors to our country, as well as crucial to the busienss and economic life of the nation.
On December 23rd it was announced that it was closed for an unspecified length of time, as its owners had not kept up with maintenance and had not realised the poor condition it has got into thanks to salt water erosion of the main tensioning cables for the construction. This is despite many a night when the flyover has been closed for maintenance. This prime route remained completely closed until 13 January, a period of three weeks, covering the period of the Christmas and New Year holidays, the main sales in West End shops and the Central London celebrations. It has now been opened for light traffic, one lane only in each direction, and is still the cause of traffic jams in west London. We are told this may last for four months.
Does anyone think for one moment a private owner of such a crucial asset would want it to be shut completely for 3 weeks,and mainly shut for another four months? Wouldn’t a private owner, under sensible Health and Safefty regulatory pressures, have checked out the tensioning cables and taken earlier action? Wouldn’t they explore propping the bridge with suitably placed supports from beneath if it had got into such a state, whilst they repaired it? If it had been a private franchise holder that had behaved in this way, wouldn’t the government be jumping up and down, demanding compensation, threatening cancellaiton of the franchise, and demanding a full investigation into poor management? Wouldn’t they expect a better answer than five months heavily disrupted?
The flyover story is just one of the biggest and most visible examples of how public sector management can think it is just fine to inconvenience thousands of people every day because they could not maintain and control their own asset sufficiently well. The flyover is free at the point of use, but many cannot now use it. Meanwhile we taxpayers will doubtless have a huge bill for late remediation work.
How well does your local Highways monopoly perform? Is safe and smooth movement of traffic its main aim? Is congestion busting its daily concern?