COMMENT: Why Brits can’t get on with toll roads

Leaders want the M6 Toll in the Midlands to be turned into a free motorway. Peter Madeley explores why we’ve never been comfortable with road charges.

Should the M6 Toll be free?
Should the M6 Toll be free?

A few years ago I found myself driving from Calais to Marseille on a hastily arranged and poorly planned holiday in the middle of a sweltering French August.

The near 700 mile route was a bane, as was the clapped out old VW Golf sans air-conditioning that I was behind the wheel of, but what really stoked my fury was having to hand over the best part of £100 for the dubious pleasure of using France’s autoroutes.

On some stretches it seemed impossible to drive for more than half an hour without having to stop at a toll booth and open up my rapidly emptying wallet.

Tolls in France are largely accepted by the locals (except in Brittany where they are banned under a decades-old edict), welcomed even, as the necessary cost of keeping the highways in prime condition.

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The same applies in Spain, which has pay-for-use autopistas was well as free motorways, and in Italy with its autostradas.

However, the same cannot be said in the UK, where the concept of paying to use our roads has long been treated with suspicion.

For many of us it seems preposterous to shell out more cash on top of car tax and fuel costs, which partly explains why toll roads have never really taken off here.

This week has seen council leaders calling for the M6 Toll through the West Midlands to become a free-to-use motorway, a move which has been suggested almost since the 27-mile route opened in 2003.

They argue that HGVs are avoiding the stretch due to its cost – which recently went up to £12 – causing long queues on the M6 and A-roads around the region and adding to pollution around residential areas in the Black Country.

But while there is merit in scrapping – or at least reducing – the toll, such a move can’t happen while it is privately controlled. And with the cost of bringing it into public ownership estimated at £2 billion, it is likely that the toll is here to stay.

Tolls on the M4 and M48 Severn bridges were axed last year

There are currently 15 roads in the UK where toll fees are charged, including busy routes such as the Dartford Crossing on the M25, which costs £2.50 for a car, and the Tyne Tunnel in the North East.

Others, such as the A4 Bathampton Toll Bridge in Somerset, date back more than a century and use the toll – 80p for a car in this case – to fund the upkeep of the Grade II listed structure and toll house.

Incidentally, it’s not just us that doesn’t like tolls. Germany is set to introduce charges for cars for the first time next year, a move which has sparked a furious response from motorists used to travelling along the pristine autobahn for free.

But while other countries are building new toll roads or bringing in charges, Britain is getting rid of them.

The tolls on the M4 and M48 Severn bridges were axed last year after around 800 years of charges, in a move that was met with delight in many circles.

Drivers rejoiced as the toll booths were ripped out, with one haulier telling the BBC that being able to cross the bridge for free was an “exciting moment”.

Experts highlighted an almost immediate boost to the economy on both sides of the England-Wales border, with house prices rising faster in the two Welsh Severnside towns of Chepstow and Caldicot than in any other UK town, and the already booming Bristol economy receiving a further jolt.

Politicians from both countries also welcomed the end of the charges, reasoning that putting more money in the pockets of local people could only be a good thing, and also noting that the tolls had served as a somewhat outdated barrier between communities.

But the removal of the tolls, which was made possible when the bridges were returned to public ownership has had a downside.

Traffic has risen substantially – with the Government estimating six million more vehicles a year may use the route – giving rise to concerns about pollution and clogged roads on both sides of the border.

A potential solution came in the form of the long-mooted M4 relief road, a 14-mile motorway serving as a gateway into south Wales that according to even the most conservative estimates, would have cost around £1.6bn.

With such a great expense on the horizon, there was even talk that the new route could be... wait for it... a toll road.

As it happened, the scheme was scrapped in June for a third time, after Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford ruled that it was too expensive and would have a damaging impact on wildlife.

Which to some extent leaves us back at square one, toying with a problem that has given highways planners sleepless nights for decades.

We have too much traffic, and not enough roads – whether we pay tolls on them or not.

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