Any rational analysis of the M6 Toll on its fifth anniversary must surely conclude that the £900 million highway, whatever else it may have achieved, has failed dismally to deliver its prime objective – reducing congestion on the main M6 through Birmingham.
There is no great mystery about why the road has not had the benefits that the then Transport Secretary insisted would be the case. Most people, businesses included, simply are not prepared to pay £9 return for cars and £18 for lorries on a regular basis. The road is, therefore, regarded as a luxury only to be used when special circumstances apply.
Not that this will worry Macquarie, the road’s operators, who even in a year of declining revenues took more than £60 million at the toll booths. The number of vehicles using the 27-mile route is substantially less than half of the predicted figure, but the owners are clearly still satisfied with the profit they are making.
All of the signs are that use of the toll road may decline even further once widening of the M6 takes place and motorists are permitted to use the hard shoulder during the busiest times. This will hand more ammunition to environmental groups, who furiously pronounce the road as an expensive white elephant.
It would be wrong, however, to write off entirely the knock-on impact of the M6 Toll. The route, built controversially through the Staffordshire green belt, has achieved exactly what critics feared by opening access to prime commercial and industrial development sites on the outskirts of Birmingham alongside the route.
Distribution depots and business parks have been springing up since 2003, bringing jobs and prosperity to areas where the economic future once appeared particularly bleak. Councils, which at one time would have rejected out of hand planning applications on these greenfield sites, have found their arms twisted by the Government, which argues that it is quite logical that development should take place along the M6 Toll corridor.
In truth, it was ever thus. There has never yet been a motorway built in Britain that did not bring warehouses, offices and hotels in its wake, and there probably never will be.
The benefits of this, in terms of jobs created and wealth generated, must of course be offset by the West Midlands’ appalling and continuing reputation for congested motorways – with businesses estimated to lose some £2.2 billion a year as a direct result of clogged roads.
As the Black Country Chamber of Commerce argues today, the M6 Toll remains dramatically under-used while congestion continues to hold back the West Midlands. It is highly unlikely, we suspect, that the Government will be keen to repeat its toll motorway experiment elsewhere in the country any time soon.