Toll story

Why Birmingham’s new motorway is mired in miserablism.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

One would think that the opening of a new motorway around Birmingham, over 20 years after it was first proposed, would be a cause for some relief, at least. But whatever the specific pros and cons of the M6 Toll, the discussion about it exposes the levels of low expectations and miserablism that surround most transport solutions today.

Between the anti-roads/cars/building/travel concerns of the environmental lobby, the cowardly cautiousness of the government, and the shrill selfishness of the commuter lobby, what should be seen as a practical addition to the UK’s heaving motorway network is quickly redefined as yet another modern problem.

Birmingham, once the home of UK car manufacturing, has long been notorious for the traffic jams that snake through the city, on the lower part of the M6. Its notoriety springs largely from the fact that such problems are so predictable: Birmingham, being Britain’s second city, is a pretty big place, and the M6 is also the main route from the South to Manchester (also a pretty big place) and north of that. The proposal for a new Midlands motorway was first announced by the Conservative government back in 1980. But since then, the project seems to have been dogged by sloth and dissent.

The preferred route was announced in 1986; in 1988, there was a public inquiry into the scheme, then known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (BNRR). By 1990, the government had confirmed that the motorway would be a private toll road, and invited companies to bid. Midland Expressway Ltd (MEL) won the contract in 1991, but faced several hurdles from campaigners (1).

One news analysis explains that campaigners raised ‘financial, environmental and practical concerns’ – a more succinct way of putting it might be that greens and NIMBYs conspired to scupper the project to protect their own interests (2). (One webpage, produced by the Alliance Against the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, announced ‘a further victory for a group of Middle England residents’, and contained contact details for a Charles Bradshaw-Smith, Chair of the Alliance Against The BNRR, and Gerald Kells, of Friends of the Earth) (3).

Another public inquiry, begun in 1994, lasted for over a year; and when New Labour won the 1997 general election, campaigners brought a legal challenge, claiming that proceeding with the road was a revision of New Labour’s pre-election position, and setting up a number of protest camps along the route. The courts upheld the government’s decision to go ahead in 1999, and in 2001 – 10 years after MEL won the contract – the main construction finally began (4).

The fact that a major new motorway can be built in less than two years is quite exciting. The fact that it takes twenty years to get started, however, it a sobering reflection on the priorities held by today’s society. Of course it is important to assess the environmental, practical and financial impact of major construction schemes, and not to ride roughshod over the countryside and people’s livelihoods. But the idea that a much-needed road scheme can be held up for years and years simply because a group of people just says No – meaning a combination of the backward No To All Roads, and the anti-social Yes But Not Here – is preposterous.

If this can happen in a place so much in need of a new motorway, and as unlikely to suffer from it, as Birmingham, how well does this bode for other clearly-necessary motorway expansion schemes – around London, say, or on the M1? The Romans understood that roads were important. Today’s society, by contrast, seems to view them as an optional extra, which can be built or not according to the whims of vocal locals with a particular axe to grind.

But then, are vocal locals against the new road any worse than complaining commuters who don’t want to pay for it? It is understandable that drivers feel got at, paying lots of money in road tax and petrol tax to sit in jams on poorly maintained roads to nowhere. But paying £2.00 to save three-quarters of an hour on a journey through Birmingham is not the worst deal in the world, if it means a good new road – rather like paying £1.00 for the Dartford crossing has not brought civilisation to an end. It certainly seems bizarre that a divisional director of one the companies involved in the M6 Toll should quit his job after bragging that the company could set whatever toll price it wanted, as though he had said something not merely crass, but grossly insensitive or morally offensive. (5)

There is, of course, a broader principle at stake in the question of toll motorways – just as there is in the debate about privately funded roads or railways. But the griping about commuter costs and freight charges ignores these more interesting discussions, in favour of a cycle of complaint that the grass is never green enough. The M6 (publicly-funded) is something of a disaster; but while that does not mean that toll motorways are necessarily a solution, nor does it bode particularly well for maintaining public funding. Conversely, privatisation of the railway network was also a disaster, but that does not mean things were perfect under British Rail. The commuter view on transport is not principled, but pragmatic – what’s good is what works best, and cheapest. Which is why nobody wants to pay tolls or more car tax, but everybody moans when the roads are a mess.

The principled view is one that looks at transport solutions in the context of what we, as a society, want and need. This is the real problem underlying transport planning today, and highlighted by the agonising process of the M6 Toll. Faced with a clear crisis on certain aspects of the motorway system, and the equally parlous state of the railways, the government knows that something has to be done to sort it out. But fear of upsetting the environment and its self-appointed human representatives, combined with a lack of faith in its ability to pull of large-scale projects, encourages compromise and vacillation at every turn.

As Austin Williams has argued before on spiked, the government’s instincts are to leave the roads alone and to find ways of stopping people from driving (see spiked-issue: Transport). But the reality of running an advanced country dependent on car use means that it cannot just do that. For all New Labour’s laudable intentions about creating an ‘integrated transport’ network, in practice this has amounted to a few more useless bus and cycle lanes, while the transport infrastructure for rail and road continues to crumble. The only way the government can see of dealing with this is to attempt to make piecemeal improvements without taking full political or financial responsibility for the projects.

From the London Underground to the motorways, there have been various attempts to play around with methods of funding – private, public, public-private combined – in order to shift responsibility for improvements on to other bodies. But such is the climate of bad faith that the government still gets the stick when things go wrong. Proposals to individualise payments for road use, through a London-style congestion charge, a motorway toll charge or various other schemes, all seek to promote the idea that roads are not the priority of society as a whole, but a luxury to be used by individuals when and if they really have to. All of this represents a departure from the notion that transport is a common good and a social necessity, and that the government should be judged on how far it fulfils that need.

Whatever your precise position on privatisation or toll booths, this gradual official abdication of responsibility for connecting people and places to one another is something that should bother us. Anybody’s life is too short to be stuck in a traffic jam in a major city, just because society’s leaders can’t muster the confidence or the vision to build something so basic as a big road.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) A long and winding road, BBC News, 9 December 2003

(2) A long and winding road, BBC News, 9 December 2003

(3) Webpage of the Alliance Against the Birmingham Northern Relief Road

(4) A long and winding road, BBC News, 9 December 2003

(5) Toll road director quits, BBC News, 10 May 2003

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Topics Politics


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