The future of the nation’s highways is OffRoad, says CBI

England’s highways should be privatised, carved up into regional franchises and come under the stewardship of a new independent regulator dubbed OffRoad, according to radical proposals to be set out today by the CBI.

Under the plan, a response to the Prime Minister’s call for a bold revolution in thinking about the nation’s roads, the beleaguered Department for Transport would be relieved of much of its responsibilities for roads and the Highways Agency would be scrapped.

In their stead, the CBI wants a non-departmental body overseeing a new structure that would borrow elements of the privatised water companies and the subsidised rail industry. In its report Bold Thinking: a model to fund our future roads, the CBI concedes that toll roads, or the pay-as-you-go charging of motorists, may be inevitable.

“Business is saying that roads — motorways and local highways — need to be improved and the economy needs a world-class road network to enable growth,” John Cridland, the Director-General of the business organisation, said. “The new ‘normal’ is that with public spending checked, we need to find new and unconventional funding solutions.

“When you consider energy, aviation, water, digital networks and the railways, the road network is the only part of the national infrastructure that is almost all fully funded by the Government and the taxpayer. We need some bold thinking.” The CBI’s plan is to take the operation of the national network of roads, from motorways to local arterial and trunk roads, to franchised contractors overseen by an independent body — perhaps an Office of Road Regulation, or OffRoad — that would oversee both strategy and funding.

The CBI envisages future regulation of the roads to mirror that of the water industry, whereby private companies would raise money to fund maintenance and improvement against the value of the roads, the “regulated asset base”.

The network could be divided into railway-type regional licences or franchises. However, such a system would have to take into account long arterial routes, such as the A46,which at present is overseen along its fractured path from the West Country to the East Midlands alternately by the Highways Agency and local councils.

Such a system, the CBI says, would unlock private investment and raise funds for new roads, along the lines of what the privatised water industry has done over the past 20 years. But he argued that it would also require some of the substantial levies raised from motorists in vehicle excise duty and taxes at the pump to be directed towards the new regulator to back maintenance investment. Although he conceded that the Treasury did not agree with the hypothecation of taxes, Mr Cridland said there was an argument for half of all vehicle excise duty to be channelled towards road spending.

He has been a strong advocate of tolling parts of the A14 from the port of Felixstowe to the West Midlands to enable desperately needed road upgrades. He said that the CBI backed the concept of toll roads only for new additional capacity, but he conceded that road-charging on existing roads could be introduced in future. “That would plainly be an issue for the new regulator,” he said.

The CBI’s investigation into the future of roads was sponsored by Aggregate Industries, the supplier of road materials. Mr Cridland denied that his organisation was lobbying for regional industrial interests.