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The case for privatising Britain’s roads

A motorway at rush hourPrivatising Britain's roads or introducing more road tolls might not be such a bad idea after all, writes motoring journalist Lois Avery, who has seen the benefits of better infrastructure since moving abroad.

Radical government proposals to privatise stretches of Britain’s roads were met with anger by motorists earlier this year.

In March, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "We need to look at innovative approaches to the funding of our national roads - to increase investment to reduce congestion.”

However, the plans were not well received - seen by many as the latest attempt to fleece motorists, who are already suffering in recent years at the hands of soaring car insurance costs and record fuel prices.

But perhaps Cameron’s plans aren’t so ludicrous and road tolls or privatisation are one way forward?

The case for privatisation

Privatisation was pitched as the solution for Britain’s congestion problems.

At the moment there is only one major toll road – on a stretch of the M6 near Birmingham – and road maintenance around the UK is largely funded by the public purse.

In addition to the congestion problem, another crucial reason for Cameron's suggestion of overhauling Britain’s road system was to beef up the existing infrastructure.

"The truth is, we are falling behind our competitors," said Cameron, speaking at the time.

I agree.

Since moving to Singapore six months ago, it’s become obvious just how poor Britain’s infrastructure is.

In Singapore, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s most well-run and modern cities, the roads are efficient and they aren’t covered in potholes or blighted by seemingly endless road works.

Why? Because you have to pay to use them.

Learning lessons from other countries

The comparison isn’t direct - Singapore’s roads aren’t privatised, they’re run by the government, much like everything else.

But, the parallel I’m drawing is the idea of "pay as you drive".

In 1998, faced with rapid urbanisation and escalating car use, the government stepped in and introduced Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).

Gantries were installed, first on central more congested roads, and then on expressways and arterial roads with heavy traffic, to discourage use during peak hours.

Currently, there are 80 ERP gantries in Singapore, which dock money from a device known as an In-vehicle Unit (IU), which is fixed to the lower right corner of the front windscreen containing a card with money loaded on to it.

It is now mandatory for all Singapore-registered vehicles to be fitted with an IU if they wish to use the priced roads.

Benefits of road pricing

Although the ERP system is not unique to Singapore - London has a similar pricing system in congestion charge zones and cities such as Toronto, Stockholm and Dubai operate pay-as-you-drive roads - Singapore is the largest full-scale success story.

The Land Transport Authority reports that since the implementation 14 years ago, road traffic decreased by nearly 25,000 vehicles during peak hours, with average road speeds increasing by about 20 per cent.

Within the restricted zone – think similar to London’s most central congestion zone - traffic has fallen by around 13 per cent, with daily vehicle numbers dropping from 270,000 to 235,000.

Car-pooling has increased, while the hours of peak vehicular traffic has also gradually eased and spread into off-peak hours. The system was largely unpopular at the time but it’s now the norm.

In addition to ERP, the Singapore government actively prices drivers off the roads with exorbitant taxes.

A hefty price to pay

Car owners must have a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), an expensive compulsory certificate designed to limit car ownership.

Residents who wish to drive must bid for the right to buy a motor vehicle, with the number of certificates deliberately restricted.

The COE allows holders to own a car for a period of 10 years, after which they must scrap or export their car with financial incentives or bid for another COE.

And it’s not cheap - the average COE cost for a compact car is between S$71,999 and S$89,500 (approximately £37,067 and £46,077 GBP).

Improved public transport

Of course, another huge difference between the UK and counties like Singapore which are discouraging car use is the state of the public transport system.

In Singapore it’s clean, efficient – delays are rare and make front-page news – and crucially, it’s affordable.

In the UK, the system is none of these things.

The point of drawing this comparison is that drivers in the UK begin to think about embracing change if infrastructure is ever to improve.

When Cameron said we were being left behind, he had a point.

However, the government should think about overhauling the public transport system before it considers pricing drivers off the roads.

What do you think?

We want to hear from you! You can share your views on the comment board below.

Lois Avery

Lois Avery

Lois joined in 2010 after working for Dyson and as a local newspaper reporter in Wiltshire. After a year writing financial journalism at, Lois won the 2011 'most promising newcomer' at the BIBA journalist of the year awards.

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