In 1989 Margaret Thatcher’s Government published Roads for Prosperity. This White Paper set out plans for “The largest road building programme since the Romans” with plans for a 12 lane M25, an outer M25 from Harwich to the M4 near Reading, an 8 lane M1 and other schemes. It was clear that the Tory Government at the time were taking no prisoners and it was no coincidence that the following year saw the Poll Tax debacle and Mrs T’s demise.
Roads for Prosperity led to major conflicts between the Government and the Environment movement, spawned Reclaim The Streets and led a series of conflicts – Twyford Down in 1992, Wanstonia in 1994 and Newbury in 96-97. These bruising bust-ups contributed to a big rethink about major road-building, and many of the more hare-brained schemes in RfP were abandoned.
The Highways Agency was formed as an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport in 1994. I guess the plan was to place all the responsibility on a body at arms length from Government so if thing went pear-shaped they could take the blame.
Nearly 25 years later A new Command Paper has been published “Action for Roads”. The language is very different – from the title onwards. This report is full of “decarbonisation” targets, “greening the road network” and so on – it actually reads in such a way that Department for Transport is now more environmentally aware than Defra.
The Highways Agency is rightly praised for its excellent work managing road verges for wildlife – they are streets ahead (sorry) of Local Authorities many of whom continue with their mindless and expensive verge cutting regimes. The list of schemes to be developed is not as hare-brained as RfP, though there are many controversial ones still in there.
The biggest proposal within Action for Roads is that the Highways Agency will be hived off into a publicly owned company. The argument goes that it will be freed from Whitehall “Red Tape” and so be more efficient. Some have suggested this is the first step towards privatisation.
Where would privatisation leave the HA’s exemplary environmental record? A public body is publicly accountable, via Ministries and politicians, to the electorate. Privatisation means accountability lies with shareholders, who are only interested in maximising share value, and clients via contracts. The public cannot rely on goodwill for a privatised Highways Agency to continue to deliver public benefits when cost drives every decision.
There are echoes of the Forestry Commission sell-off here, and the ongoing disposal of MoD land. This is another agency with responsibility for public land being sold off to the private sector.