James May

Road works

May’s Britain

I don’t know if anyone ever sent you – or if you even noticed it amongst all the offers of a bigger penis, the opportunity to invest in Nigeria, or something called ‘Monday morning humour’ – that round-robin email about the anti road-pricing petition.

Here’s how it worked. Downing Street’s website – where anyone can create a petition – had one on which you could register your objection to a form of tax that researchers say will burden some school-run mothers with a bill for £86 a month. But they didn’t exactly advertise it, because if more than 750,000 names are logged on a petition, they are constitutionally obliged to look into it.

By the time you read this, it will be too late, because the deadline for responding was 20 February. And that would have been the end of that, were it not for whoever created the world’s first useful circular email. When I looked this morning – well within the cut-off date – 1,114,156 people had registered a digital gypsy’s warning to Mr Brown and his evil henchmen. By lunchtime, Radio 2 could reveal that another 200,000 or so had been added. Hoorah for desktop democracy.

Unfortunately, though, and as we know from the miners’ strike, the poll-tax riots, the anti-war march and those people who hang around outside McDonald’s with leaflets about vegetarianism, protest doesn’t really work. At least, not unless it involves a truly significant portion of the population, as it did in the General Strike, the women’s suffrage movement, and Indian passive resistance. Even if the road-pricing petition closes with three million signatories, it’s still an insignificant portion of the total driving population of Britain.

I have therefore come up with a better idea, which I am incorporating into the fledgling manifesto of a new governmental system known as May’s Britain. More of this another day, since it’s rather complex and involves the imprisonment of around 80 per cent of the population, including, I suspect, Clarkson and Hammond. But here’s the thinking behind this bit...

Yes, we will pay to use the roads. We already do, of course, through road tax and petrol duty, but we will allow pay-as-you-go road pricing as well. Road space is a finite commodity and so, the economics argument would go, it must have a value. Fair enough. But if any part of our road is unavailable, we receive a refund.

This makes perfect sense. If the local council widened the pavement outside my house and wanted a few feet out of my front yard, they’d have to buy it. It’s my yard, I paid for it, so it comes at a price.

"1,114,156 people had registered a digital gypsy’s warning to Mr Brown and his evil henchmen" 

The other day I retiled my bathroom floor. As I hadn’t bothered to measure it, I bought more than enough tiles. When, at the end of the operation, I had a box left, the shop bought them back.

Only yesterday I cancelled the insurance on a car I’ve just sold. As I’d paid for a year’s cover and only used three months’ worth, the insurance company sent me a cheque for the difference. No one would regard this as anything other than fair and reasonable.

This brings me, inevitably, to the subject of road works. I’ve just spent an hour driving along one lane of the A316 dual carriageway into London, the other one being closed for a distance of some five miles. It was a Sunday evening, and tens of thousands of people desperate to return home to their loved ones and Top Gear were horribly inconvenienced. And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, there was not a single person or wheelbarrow anywhere to be seen within the area closed to protect the work force.

I know this complaint is as old as the car itself. I know every single road user in the country would agree closing the road and then not doing anything with it is stupid. I’ve a good mind to start a petition. But then, there’s no point in simply objecting, because that didn’t stop the invasion of Iraq, so it certainly won’t persuade a lot of local government numpties to stop eating biscuits and get on with their work. A proper incentive, based on jeopardy, is required.

And let’s not blame the workers. Clarkson, Hammond and I spent 24 hours with some of them recently, and they’re a stout bunch of chaps. Their work is quite hazardous, they go to it with a will and they want to go home as much as anyone else. No, the problem is somewhere with t’management.

In an earlier incarnation of May’s Britain, everyone involved in the failure to organise roadworks properly would simply be put in prison. The thought of them slopping out, however, is not that much of a comfort when you’re stuck in the jam they’ve created.

I also thought about resurrecting those cages used in olden times, the ones suspended from trees and derricks, where they put highwaymen and pirates so that the people could be entertained watching them starve. Roads managers would be locked in one of these as the first bollard was placed and not allowed to come out until the last one was put away.

But this wouldn’t work for ever. Imagine the Oxford ring-road that Clarkson’s always banging on about; the one where the roadworks have been going on for years. The roadside trees would be decked with rotting executives, and I suspect that by now Oxfordshire’s commuters would be bored with running odds on which eyeball would be the next one to be pecked out by a crow.

No – the rebate system is the answer. The moment work stops on any coned-off stretch of road, the man in charge has to stand at its end, naked save for his hard hat, and hand out money to drivers. Let’s say a pound for every extra minute the journey has taken compared with an average time when the road is clear.

So, on my trip along the A316, I’d have collected around £45 in return for not being able to drive on road that I’ve already paid for. And so would every other driver on that Sunday evening. It might easily come to a million pounds. Let’s see how long they shilly-shally around with that sort of disincentive hanging over them.

You know it makes sense. It’s just one more reason why May’s Britain is exactly the sort of place you would want to live.



James May, Column

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