Expert Blog

Will this Christmas gift come with a New Year’s bill?

We recently wrote about one Christmas present that motorists are receiving this year: cheap fuel. Now here’s another: 400 miles of road works are going to be cleared from England’s highways in time for the seasonal break. It’s an initiative that was announced by the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin.

The idea is that Highways England, the government-owned company that tends our motorways, will stop 145 of its projects by 6am on 23rd December. Some of these will start again at midnight on 2nd January. But the majority of them – 106 projects, accounting for 273 miles – will simply be finished. Those road works will be no more.

This is eye-catching politics. In fact, it’s a little bit like the free public transport that Londoners have become used to on New Year’s Eve. In both cases, politicians are effectively saying: ‘Enjoy the holidays! Have one on us!’ It makes a change to giveaways only happening on Budget days or in the manifestos published ahead of general elections. Our response ought to be: ‘Thanks! Don’t mind if I do!’

But, more than that, McLoughlin’s announcement is another example of the Conservatives’ eagerness to appeal to motorists. This used to express itself, during the last Parliament, through George Osborne’s various cuts and freezes to fuel duty. But then, as the Parliament wore on, the Chancellor became more interested in tarmac than petrol. First there was the fund to fill in all, or at least a good portion of, the thousands of potholes. Then there was the £15 billion for renovating Britain’s roads wholesale.

It might seem strange to equate this latest scheme, which removes road works, with others that create road works – but that’s the truth of it. All are about making drivers’ lives easier, whether in the short term or the long run. And winning votes in the process.

The question is whether we’ll have to pay for it in some other way. I don’t want to be the curmudgeon at the Christmas party, but I can’t help but think of the warning that we appended to our recent post on fuel prices. Could it be that Osborne is preparing to boost the Exchequer’s coffers by raising fuel duty? If so, are we just being softened up in the meantime?

The answers will come in 2016, if they come at all. But, in keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s take it at face value for now. Less road works. Less traffic. More time drinking sherry in front of the fireplace. Happy Christmas!

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