Last month, junior transport minister Stephen Hammond got up to speak at a conference convened to discuss the future of the UK’s strategic roads network. A good time to hold such a conference, after the announcement on reshaping the Highways Agency which is in charge of that network, and a good minister to persuade to speak at it.
Because you see, Hammond isn’t just a current transport minister; he was shadow transport minister before the 2010 general election, when he was on the receiving end of proposals from the likes of McKinsey, Rothschild and KPMG to privatise the road network. At the time, a price tag of £100 billion was being briefed to journalists, and has stuck.
Now Hammond was asked, after trotting out all the usual wonderful news about government recasting the Highways Agency and resurfacing 80 per cent of the strategic road network and so on, what about privatisation? He replied:
“When we first met the Prime Minister’s challenge last year we started to look at the challenge, how do we get private sector money and private sector investment into it, and I think that was a really good exercise, the only trouble was, when I arrived in September, I looked at the first draft of the Paper and it was actually a very good Paper, but the problem with it was it was almost like the toddler learning to jump on a motorcycle before he had learnt to walk, run and then ride a bike, to use an analogy, and therefore the iciness was very much stages on the road, so what you will also see is a very clear view that a commercialised Highways Agency are a long‐term funding certainty leaves open the opportunity for the next Parliament…”
I’ll stop the waffle there. There might be a few typos in this uncorrected transcript but essentially Hammond is seeking to explain away a U-turn – and stretching the truth in the process. For a start, he was not, as he implies, suddenly confronted with a privatisation plan when he was appointed to the transport department last September. He had been looking at such plans since 2010 at the latest. For another, some of the proposals would have involved shadow toll schemes similar to those used for road PFI projects in the UK under the previous Conservative and Labour governments in the 1990s and 2000s.
So we’ll have to wait till 2015 – and whoever is in charge at the next election – to see if roads privatisation comes back. I told you it would be politically unpalatable.