Let’s de-toll the M6 Toll

An overhead view of a junction between two motorways and another major road. The motorways and connecting slip roads are carried above ground on piers. Some warehouses can be seen in the background and trees are growing in between the slip roads.
‘Spaghetti Junction’, an interchange on the old M6 through the north of Birmingham

In the wake of yesterday’s court ruling that the extension of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the outer suburbs can go ahead in the face of opposition from Conservative-controlled outer London borough councils, the Guardian today published a feature on clean-air zone systems around the country, featuring schemes in Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. Birmingham’s scheme only affects the city centre, within a ring road which is a dual carriageway punctuated by traffic lights as it crosses the main roads out of the city; it does not directly benefit most of the built-up area surrounding it, which is crossed by two major motorways and several dual carriageways. A number of years ago a toll motorway was built around the northern fringes of this built-up area, as part of a Tory private finance scheme which started under John Major’s government in the 1990s but which Tony Blair actually had built. I’ve used this road a few times and it’s always blissfully clear; unlike in France, even at the tollgates there’s no congestion. Some of the increases in the toll have been because the road sees so little use, it does not pay for itself.

The reason for this is that most traffic avoids it and uses the M6 through Birmingham, and this is especially true of HGV traffic. Most employers will not allow their drivers to use it because it costs extra money; generally you have to pull over at a service station to check the traffic news and call the boss to check whether you can use it or not. Some companies provide a toll tag so a driver can let himself through the gates automatically, while others expect the driver to pay and put it on their expenses. Normally this is allowed only for people needing to get up the M6 to places like Manchester; the M6 Toll runs via Lichfield, where there are a number of major logistics hubs, and there are more up the road in Burton on Trent. Drivers going to these places are expected to use the parallel A-roads because their bosses are not willing to pay the toll to use less than half of the length of the motorway (the toll for partial use is almost as much as the full toll). The upshot is that there remains a long stretch of dual carriageway, the A38, alongside the southern half of the M6 Toll and another busy trunk road, the A5, along its northern stretch. Every day, hundreds of trucks from south and east of Birmingham make their way up and down a stretch of single-carriageway road, the A446, mostly carrying palletised freight, to avoid paying the toll.

If the M6 Toll were de-tolled, not only could much of this traffic be moved off old roads onto a modern motorway, but the parallel dual carriageway could be reduced to a single carriageway (or removed altogether, as the old road still exists) and its management be devolved to the local authority; the ridiculous stretch of triple carriageway, where the A446 towards Coventry diverges from the A38 to Birmingham at the Bassets Pole roundabout and runs right next to it for about half a mile, could be reduced to a sensible two lanes, and the huge Bassets Pole roundabout (built to accommodate a flyover for the A38) be downsized or possibly removed. However, the biggest benefit would be that most of the cross-country traffic currently trundling through the northern suburbs of Birmingham, belching out fumes into an area that is not yet a clean air zone, could simply use the perfectly good motorway to the north. If it is thought necessary to remove from London the minority of older trucks that are here to actually do business, we might consider that at least those who do not need to come into London can use the M25 and avoid the urban area altogether; the equivalent option is not available to truck drivers needing to get across Birmingham.

This will not totally remove through traffic from the Birmingham area; the M5 still runs through the Black Country west of Birmingham and links to the M6 which continues through the outer suburbs to meet the M6 Toll near Cannock. Much of this traffic will still need to use this route as rerouting it to the east would both increase distances and add to congestion on the east side of Birmingham (especially around the airport/NEC area), but the constant congestion on the M6 through the Wolverhampton area will be reduced and this will also improve the local air quality. I know the extension to the ULEZ is more to do with paying off debts than with improving air quality, but if Londoners’ lungs are owed this comparatively modest air quality improvement, those of people in Birmingham, Walsall and the surrounding areas are owed a much greater debt for putting up with all our fumes for decades, and it would be much simpler to achieve than the ULEZ has been.

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