'A two-tier UK road network would divide rich and poor motorists'

A two-tier road system would separate the rich and poor motorists forever if we aren't careful, says Mike Rutherford

Opinion - M11

Britain's ruling Conservative Party spoke enthusiastically about raising the speed limit to 80mph in recent days. I wonder why.

It’s not as if the typical motorist (or the kids that travel on his or her passenger seats) is, in the current climate, demanding from politicians the right to drive or ride at greater speeds across our troubled motorway network, where 70mph, if you can do it, is plenty in view of the sheer density of traffic. Come to think of it, I know of no motoring or non-motoring individuals, pressure groups or companies who are seriously advocating increased limits in an era when the number of vehicles per usable mile of UK highway is among the highest in the western world.

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But to put this ‘maybe we’ll raise it to 80mph’ suggestion from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps into context, it’s hardly new. Conservative and Labour Governments have occasionally flirted with the idea, usually in cheap, cynical attempts to deflect attention away from more pressing matters. 

This time around, the Conservative cry for 80mph is nothing to do with allowing motorists to travel faster. Instead, it’s about preparations for a two-tier road system that, if we’re not careful, will rapidly and rudely be dumped upon us from a great height. This is a natural extension of the road-pricing ideas recently proposed by the Transport Committee.

Tier 1 will comprise a miserable, desperately slow network catering for cash-strapped drivers who are unable to pay exorbitant toll fees. Tier 2 is likely to be happier and quicker – this is where the proposed 80mph limit kicks in – and will serve wealthy drivers who’ll pay a very high price for a cocktail of eye-wateringly expensive road-toll fees-cum-fines – either out of their own pocket, via their expense accounts or, in the case of national and local politicians, thanks to income tax and/or council tax-payers who’ll be forced to pick up the tab.

For decades, close neighbours such as France and Spain have subjected motorists to the unpalatable ‘choice’ between roads that are slow/non-toll/traffic-choked, or fast/tolled/free-flowing. And for their governments and high-income car users, this works just fine. Trouble is, for the low-to-mid-income motoring masses, it’s a daily headache that wastes years of people’s lives due to needlessly long journey times, plus unnecessary wear and tear on their vehicles, which are forced to stop and start every few minutes or seconds.  

Road pricing enquiry plans

It’s crazy that England may adopt this European model, thereby creating one road network for the rich and another for the poor. And it’s ironic that it could be adopted when we’re supposed to be departing the EU, which has long championed tolling systems.  

In the UK at least, driving shouldn’t be about one free-flowing road network for the elite, then a separate series of clogged rat runs for minimum-wage workers – never mind pensioners struggling to make ends meet while proudly trying to maintain their independence. That just wouldn’t be the motoring democracy and freedom the vast majority of Brits surely have a right to – whether wealthy, skint, or somewhere between.

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Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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