The government plans to raise the speed limit to 80mph from 70mph in a victory for the transport secretary, Philip Hammond.
Hammond said on Thursday he will launch a consultation later this year with a view to introducing the new limit in 2013.
The new policy is part of a determined bid to shift the government on to the side of the motorists after successive governments appeared keen to discourage driving.
Hammond is expected to couple the increase with an expansion of 20mph limits in many urban areas.
But the motorway proposal is expected to receive stiff opposition from road safety campaigners and environmentalists who point out that cars are far less fuel efficient at the higher speed.
Hammond said: “Britain’s roads should be the arteries of a healthy economy and cars are a vital lifeline for many.” he blamed Labour’s “shortsighted and misguided war on the motorist” for penalising drivers.
“This government has already scrapped the M4 bus lane, cut central government funding for money-making speed cameras and announced new measures to crack down on boy racers and reckless drivers while standing up for the decent majority,” he said.
“Now it is time to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and look again at the motorway speed limit which is nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology.
“Increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times. So we will consult later this year on raising the limit to get Britain moving.”
The existing 70mph limit was set in 1965. The government argues that cars are significantly safer since then, with a fall of 75% in the numbers of people killed every year on British roads since then. It insists road safety is still a top priority for the government.
It also says that up to 49% of drivers are currently breaking the top speed limit.
The change was due to be announced at the Tory party conference in Manchester this weekend but was brought forward after news leaked.
Greenpeace’s senior transport campaigner Emma Gibson said: “The Saudi oil minister will rub his hands with glee when he learns of Philip Hammond’s decision. At a time when North Sea oil production is going down and we are ever more reliant upon unstable regimes and fragile environments to fuel our cars, the transport secretary’s decision will raise oil consumption and carbon emissions when we need to cut both.”
The policy package represents the end of a drawn-out Whitehall battle with Hammond having to fend off the concerns of the climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, and the health secretary, Andrew Lansley.
Huhne fought against it as the 10mph increase will see cars use more fuel and so increase pollution. Lansley’s department raised concerns it will see a rise in road casualties. It comes before a conference in which the Tories announce popular policies to remind activists of their own party’s instincts outside the coalition.
Several welfare announcements are expected.
Government plans to raise speed limit to 80mph