The current cold snap has led to widespread disruption on Britain’s roads. Much of the network has been left untreated as local authorities have struggled to cope and many routes have been blocked by uncleared snow or abandoned vehicles.
Is there a solution to the transport chaos that descends on the UK whenever temperatures drop below freezing and a few inches of snow fall? There are good reasons to believe that privatising the road network would produce far stronger incentives to keep traffic flowing.
Under current arrangements trunk roads and motorways are managed by the Highways Agency and the rest of the network by local authorities. While their staff undoubtedly work hard to respond to disruption as it happens, the financial incentives for these organisations to resolve this recurring problem in the long term are very weak. Taxpayers fund their activities whether or not they perform well.
By contrast, profit-seeking private road owners – heavily dependent on tolls for their income – would have very strong incentives to keep the roads clear. Nightmare scenarios, such as motorists being stuck overnight in their cars in freezing weather, could do immense damage to the reputation of private road companies and their brand names. Moreover, the possibility of costly insurance claims from accidents caused by poor road conditions would provide a further incentive for owners to ensure their infrastructure was adequately cleared and gritted.