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Free M6 toll road to get the West Midlands moving again

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Sion's article for the Birmingham Post

In May, with the election of regional mayors in the West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester, there will be an unprecedented transfer of powers from Whitehall to the great English regions. This offers an historic opportunity for rebalancing not just our politics, but our economy away from London and the South East.  

Taking back control of our affairs also means starting to change those things that hold us back but we’ve long since stopped complaining about.

Take road congestion. A national study has predicted that by 2030, we’ll spend 18 days per year in traffic jams. That’s more than two-thirds of the annual average holiday allowance in gridlock. The impacts on productivity and collective well-being are obvious.

Another study by our regional Chambers of Commerce found that road congestion costs West Midlands businesses £2 billion a year.

While a third report found that abysmal air quality is responsible for 1,200 deaths a year in the West Midlands alone.

The ten-year construction of HS2, due to start next year, can bring great economic benefit to the West Midlands. The eventual arrival of high speed rail and, with hard-headed political leadership, increased aviation capacity in the West Midlands can transform opportunity for the people of our region and our nation’s productivity gap. But not before we sort out our roads.

The HS2 construction phase also seems likely to have a catastrophic effect on our already congested roads. And such are the powers handed to HS2 by Parliament that we in the region ultimately have no say in how these effects will be managed. This needs to change. Nothing could be less devolutionary than a huge infrastructure project in the centre of our region in the mediation of which we have no say.

All the while, sitting atop our conurbation, like a sardonic eyebrow, is a 6 lane motorway with hardly any cars on it. The M6 toll starts in Coleshill, passes Lichfield and Cannock and ends in Wolverhampton. With scarcely a car in sight.  

Toll roads without traffic don’t make a lot of money, so its Australian owners have reportedly put it up for sale. I believe the asking price (and nobody pays the asking price), is significantly less than the West Midlands loses each year to congestion. The people of the West Midlands want free use of this road. And not because we particularly want to use it ourselves; but because we want everyone driving through our region on their way somewhere else to use it, and thereby reduce the strain on our local motorways and roads.

It’s obvious that the state, preferably at the regional level, should take ownership of this road. The economic case is compelling. Even the Tory government in London knows this. But they can’t admit it because it goes against their ideological grain.  

So, Mr Grayling, please can we agree a government-backed deal to take regional control of the M6 toll and make it free?

Government-backed, by the way, because another unpalatable but essential part of real devolution is that you can’t keep all the money in London any more. It’s not actually yours. We earned it. We made it. The West Midlands is a £110 billion economy. Bigger than 7 out of 10 of the world’s countries. We send you billions in personal and corporate taxation. Then you give us a tiny fraction back as though you’re doing us a favour. Well not any more. Give us our money, please. And some extra for the road, which will mainly be used by people outside the region. Thanks.


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