Changing vehicle taxation to solve the crisis in the state of UK highways

To state the obvious, UK roads are in a mess! It will take an estimated cost of £15bn to resolve the existing damaged roads infrastructure. Sadly, it is unlikely that the UK Government has any intention of making the much needed repairs a spending priority. It is only going to get worse, so it’s time to make a stand and get the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities.

Why is repairing and maintaining the UK road infrastructure a priority?

Vehicles are getting heavier! This will only lead to a more rapid deterioration of the highway infrastructure in the UK. The table below shows the change, over 10 years, in the average weight of vehicles on UK roads:

Vehicle TypeAverage Weight (2013)Average Weight (2023)Change in Weight
Heavy Goods Vehicles44,000 kg46,500 kg+5.7%
Buses12,000 kg12,500 kg+4.2%
Light Commercial Vehicles2,500 kg2,700 kg+8.0%
Cars1,500 kg1,600 kg+6.7%
Motorcycles180 kg190 kg+5.6%

The weight of a vehicle is a significant factor in its impact on the road infrastructure. Heavier vehicles put more stress on the road surface, which can lead to potholes, cracks, and other forms of damage. This can be costly to repair, and it can also pose a safety hazard to drivers and pedestrians. In the UK, the average weight of a car has been increasing in recent years. This is due in part to the popularity of larger vehicles, such as SUVs and minivans. However, it is also due to the increasing weight of batteries in electric vehicles. A study by the University of Nottingham found that the average weight of a new car in the UK increased by 200 kilograms between 2000 and 2019. This increase in weight is estimated to have cost the government an additional £1.2 billion in road maintenance costs over the same period.

The impact of vehicle weight on road infrastructure is not limited to potholes and cracks. Heavier vehicles also contribute to the wear and tear of road markings, signs, and lighting. They can also make it more difficult for snow ploughs to clear roads in winter. In addition to the financial costs, the damage caused by heavy vehicles can also have a negative impact on road safety. Potholes and cracks can cause vehicles to lose control, and they can also make it more difficult for drivers to see road markings and signs. This can lead to accidents, which can result in injuries or fatalities.

How does vehicle weight specifically affect the highway infrastructure?

As vehicle weight increases, the pressure exerted on the road surface also intensifies. Minute flexing movements of the road surface breaks the aggregate bonding. Over time the surface fractures along the points of least resistance allowing the ingress of debri and water that cause additional forces to further break the road surface. This leads to accelerated wear and tear, resulting in potholes, cracks, and rutting. As the road surfaces weren’t designed to take the heavier traffic, this causes a much more rapid wear and tear.. Cumulatively, all vehicles, especially when queueing or moving slowly, can also significantly shorten the life of the highway. These damages require very costly and frequent repairs, straining limited infrastructure budgets. Due to the delays caused, there are additional costs to businesses and services and slower reponse times for emergency services. Finally, there are the mounting repair bills to vehicle owners. Businesses may pass these costs onto customers, so goods and services become more expensive, adding to the burden on household incomes. Everybody loses.

Where does the money go?

The latest figures, 2021/2022 show that the combined amount of vehicle excise and fuel duty totalled £33bn. This money goes into the UK Government taxation fund and a budgeted amount for all types of transport, based on political priorities, is then allocated to the Department for Transport. An amount, again seemingly dependent on political priorities, is allocated to local authorities. Everyone involved in the decision making chain has their own priorities and political affiliations. Only £11.9bn (2021-2022) was spent on national and local roads. This is a reduction of £0.7bn on the previous year. Continuing reductions on the road maintenance budget means the problem is only going to get worse. There seems to be no solution in sight and the damage to the UK economy is likely to last for many years. This will be beyond the life of the current UK Government and most likely the next one too.

In a time of severe economic hardship, the costs to the public continue to increase each year. It disadvantages the poorest households in the UK. It’s a mess and we need a different way to tackle the issue.

A possible solution

A somewhat radical option is needed. Otherwise, by the time we reach 2035, when internal combustion engines will slowly disappear from UK roads, the highway infrastructure will no longer be fit for any kind of traffic. The economic costs will be horrendous. Instead, we should consider implementing the same principle that is applied to environmental damage in other areas of industry and commerce: ‘the polluter pays’. In other words, remove all vehicle and fuel excise duty and replace it with a ‘vehicle weight and journey length excise duty’, applying it to the fully laden weight of the vehicle. We can ignore the fact that many of the massive vanity SUVs only carry a single occupant, the driver. Yes, many will complain that they are being ‘unfairly’ penalised. So what’s new about those outbursts?

In addition, the UK Government can set up an independent highway infrastructure authority solely responsible for the repair, maintenance and upgrading of highways in the UK. Budget allocations and repair, maintenance and upgrading decisions, could be based solely on highway use and traffic flow priorities. This would be both economically and politically a much fairer system than the begging bowl, who shouts loudest and political back-rubbing that appears to be the case at present.

In the immediate future, it is likely that the average weight of vehicles will continue to increase. This is due to the increasing popularity of larger vehicles, as well as the increasing weight of batteries in electric vehicles. However, there are a number of things that an independent highways agency can do to reduce the impact of vehicle weight on the road infrastructure. These include:

  • Investing in better road maintenance
  • Designing roads that are more resilient to heavy traffic
  • Developing lighter vehicles and penalise the use of heavier vehicles

By taking these steps, changing the taxation structure and placing the care of the highway infrastructure with a politically independent body, we can help to protect our road infrastructure and keep our roads safe for everyone.

The state of roads in the UK poses significant challenges due to limitations on budgets, varying criteria for road repairs, and the social costs of inaction. Addressing these issues now is vital to ensure public safety, support economic growth and protect the environment. By increasing funding, standardising criteria, and implementing proactive measures, the UK can pave the way for a well-maintained, efficient, and sustainable road network that benefits all citizens and the nation as a whole. By understanding the adverse effects of increasing vehicle weight on the highway infrastructure, the UK can make informed decisions to ensure a resilient and sustainable road network for the future. Everybody wins.

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