Snow chaos – could private roads do better?

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.

14 thoughts on “Snow chaos – could private roads do better?”

  1. Posted 07/01/2010 at 13:56 | Permalink

    A couple of practical solutions, used regularly in countries where snow is more common: snow tyres and chains. The former could be put on the cars at the sniff of a cold snap and the latter carried and used when we have weather experienced currently. The advantage is transferring the cost to drivers. Nobody would need to complain about the council failing to grit then.

    Think how much money could be saved by local councils on gritting, especially when it is not needed as happens sometimes.

    Charging for road use is an idea that has merit beyond current icy spell. A type of PFI in reverse with the state receiving a proportion of income from the booths as with the Dartford Crossing.

  2. Posted 07/01/2010 at 14:15 | Permalink

    Jonathan – I agree that road user charging has many other merits, particularly if ownership of the infrastructure and control over pricing is transferred to the private sector. However, I am not so sure that snow tyres and chains make economic sense in a country such as Britain where very cold conditions are on the whole relatively rare and shortlived. With around 30 million vehicles on the roads, the costs involved could be very high.

  3. Posted 07/01/2010 at 16:07 | Permalink

    What about the roads where people live? The idea that people can’t leave their own home without paying whatever extortionate fee the owner of the road demands would offend most of us, I think.

  4. Posted 07/01/2010 at 16:17 | Permalink


    There need be no compulsion to buy snow tyres and chains. If companies made them available commercially then road users could choose whether to buy them or not and if not them refrain from using their vehicles on the roads during the brief periods you mention.

    I disagree about the expense. Many vehicles could be kitted out with spare tyres and wheels for about £4-500 in total, so you just change wheels when the weather turns bad until it improves. It means having 4 spare wheels instead on one, which could be kept in the garage, Chains only cost about £20 for a set.

    Have you asked the LGA for the country’s annual bill for gritting?

  5. Posted 07/01/2010 at 16:24 | Permalink

    Steve – This is indeed a very difficult issue for advocates of private roads. In comparison, the privatisation of trunk roads and motorways which do not provide direct access to properties is relatively straightforward. Of course, the state already forces people to pay various taxes and adhere to various regulations to drive on public highways.

    The free-market solution to this problem might involve proprietary communities assuming ownership of local roads, and/or contractual arrangements guaranteeing access when public roads are transferred to private ownership. Some roads could perhaps be left as ‘unowned’ common land, managed by local people on an informal basis.

  6. Posted 07/01/2010 at 16:27 | Permalink


    I think that to be commercially viable any road pricing scheme would have to be for motorways and trunk roads only; at least to start with.

    No political party would ever envisage charging for more, without it bedding down as it would probably attract critics. It would have to invest a vast amount of political capital even to carry that idea. BUT we do already pay tolls to cross bridges and tunnels and many people are used to paying tolls on French autoroutes, Spanish autopistas etc as well as the ferry or tunnel to cross the Channel. Most Londoners have reluctantly accepted the congestion charge now – arguably an idea with greater political risk.

  7. Posted 07/01/2010 at 16:35 | Permalink

    Jonathan @4 – Good points. I would also like to see a figure for the gritting bill. While the tyres are expensive (and many people would baulk at changing them themselves), the snow chains seem like good value, particularly for those at high risk of getting stuck on minor roads.

  8. Posted 07/01/2010 at 20:50 | Permalink

    The Local Government Association states there are 240,000 miles of roads. 180,000 tonnes of salt to grit them all once (assuming a rate of 0.75 tonnes per mile) and single lane gritting on motorways etc. Salt costs £25-£30 per tonne. 1.7m miles had been gritted over the last 21 days, costing c£31.8-38.5m. That works out at £1.06-£1.28 per car. BUT not all roads have been gritted. Driver, fuel, gritter maintenance and other Council overheads are not included in this calculation either. Tyres and chains would last for many seasons. 4X4s and those not using their vehicles would not need them.

  9. Posted 07/01/2010 at 20:54 | Permalink

    My question on this is the same i have with the railways privatisation. I am happy with privatisation in general as it is normally about providing better services and more choice. What i fail to see like with the railways is that if i don’t like a particular supplier my choice of an alternative would be severely limited. Most of the south west would be totally dependent on whoever operated the M5 or else face significantly longer journey times. While that is a choice its not one that benefits the consumer unless there happened to be a second motorway that was running in competition with the M5. But i don’t see that happening. But i agree alternative solutions should considered.

  10. Posted 07/01/2010 at 21:55 | Permalink

    Jonathan @8 – Thanks for taking the trouble to dig out these data. The total cost estimate is surprisingly low, though, as you suggest, there will be significant other costs involved. The figures seem to suggest that it would be worthwhile for private operators to devote far greater resources to keep the roads clear in order to maintain toll revenues.

  11. Posted 07/01/2010 at 22:01 | Permalink

    Phil Bentley @9 – Competition issues are another difficult problem. However, a road owner could not raise tolls with impunity. Economic activity would be diverted elsewhere to areas where transport costs were lower; customers would be lost. Planning controls hamper this adjustment process, so liberalising the planning system would produce large benefits in this regard. Moreover, it’s important that owners face at least the threat of competing infrastructure being developed. Damaging monopolies are almost always sustained by artificial government restrictions on market entry. Such restrictions should be removed as part of the road privatisation process.

  12. Posted 08/01/2010 at 11:38 | Permalink

    Phil – there have been problems regarding railway privatisation and opinions differ on whether it was the wrong type of privatisation, not radical enough etc. However, there have also been undoubted successes. Traffic on the railways has increased dramatically, as has the number of trains and seat availability on long-distance routes – and this traffic growth is way beyond the usual relationship with economic growth. It is also interesting how well the train companies have coped with this spell of weather after the surprise of last February (and anybody can be surprised once). (A) They do not want to lose revenue and (B) they have a reputation to protect.

  13. Posted 08/01/2010 at 11:39 | Permalink

    Phil – and another point about monopoly. Pure monopolies are rare. However, if there is monopoly power, nationalisation is the worst solution.

  14. Posted 13/01/2011 at 10:50 | Permalink

    Following our discussion about the UK’s response and relative costs of handling winter weather conditions on the roads, I attach some interesting, recently published addenda.

    Ocado have adopted the use of winter tyres on their vehicles and provide the following explanation on their website for this.

    Here’s a newspaper article about the commercial and financial benefits of the use of winter tyres for Ocado’s home delivery van fleet, following Ocado’s recent profits announcement.

    Some organisations have already begun to realise the benefits of our discussion. I would be happy to carry out some further research work and analysis with you Richard to quantify the wider potential economic benefits to the UK.

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