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What I think about the Highways Agency and road investment in the UK

Road with Investment word, turning into an arrow rising upward symbolizing the way to improve investment

A personal perspective from Former Transport Minister and Strategic Advisor to Clearview Traffic Group,Dr Stephen Ladyman

In just a few weeks the Highways Agency, hitherto an Executive Agency of Government, will become a publicly owned corporation and will be renamed Highways England.

The management team here at Clearview Traffic have been wondering why this is happening.

Announcing the decision, the Government said its intention by 'transforming the Highways Agency into a government-owned strategic highways company' was to give it the independence to run the roads for which they are responsible more effectively – thus providing a better service to road users.

No-one can argue with the desire to see the roads run as efficiently and as effectively as possible – and in the consultation that followed the announcement few people did – but the question remains as to why that could not be achieved under the old structure.

As the Minister of State, I had ministerial responsibility for the Highways Agency from 2005 to 2007 and I never had any reason to think a change in structure might benefit either the Agency or the Government.

I found them responsive and easy to work with, and I doubt they ever felt the need for more independence as Executive Agencies are treated as arms-length bodies.

In fact, as part of the governance arrangements for Highways England, the new company will operate under a licence. The draft licence has been published, and it allows the Secretary of State for Transport to issue statutory directions to Highways England and sets out how Highways England must act in exercising its role.

It is difficult to see, therefore, exactly how much additional independence it will have, in practice the Government will give it its marching orders and pay the bills, just as it always has.

Arguably, the new structure will allow the Company to become more 'business like' and entrepreneurial in its dealings – and if that is the case it will be a positive development.

If it is run well, if it treats all its suppliers and partners – big and small, fairly, and if it delivers more bang for the tax payers, buck then none of us will have cause for concern, we must watch this space and be ready to shout if that turns out not to be the direction of travel.

The Government also said they wanted to see the 'introduction of a road investment strategy, setting out a long-term investment plan for the network, with a strategic vision, clear performance requirements and multi-year funding'.

The implication being that this would become possible because of the new arrangements and that somehow the existing structure had hampered this effort.

In fact, every Government at some time has published something it refers to as a 'strategic plan' for our roads, even if sometimes the money ran out before it could be implemented.

Arguably, the latest version of this plan that the Government was seeking has now been delivered with the recent announcement of a 15bn road investment programme, and this was produced under the current Agency structure.

However it was produced and whether by an Executive Agency or a Public Corporation, the investment programme is very welcome. A 15bn roads programme has the potential to deliver some real improvements to the network, and some of the headline announcements are genuinely exciting.

Extending the dualling of the A1 will be welcomed across the North East and this allied to transport investments in the North West and Yorkshire, and investments to improve access to international gateways (i.e. ports and airports), have the potential to start eroding the imbalance between the economies of the South and North.

Let us be clear, though, much more than just transport investments will be needed if that imbalance is to be fully corrected, it will likely be the work of a generation not just a few years and, whilst efforts are made to develop infrastructure in the North, the South will not be standing still, and will continue to attract investors and push on with its own infrastructure improvements.

Further investment in Smart Motorways is also to be welcomed.

Smart Motorway schemes are cost effective, offer real improvements to traffic flows and capacity increase, and without the need to spend years in planning consultations before the work can get underway.

I would say that though, wouldn't I? It was me that recognised the potential of such schemes when it became clear that the M42 pilot project was delivering great results – and then defended their roll out in front of the Select Committee when it was the prevailing wisdom among most commentators that hard shoulder running would be unsafe.

As someone who lives in Somerset, I am also pleased by the proposal to dual the A303 to Exeter. I am sceptical though about a tunnel under Stonehenge – 1bn on a single mile of road is just not sensible and my prediction is that that project will get cancelled sometime during the next Parliament because, at that price, there will always be other road projects that offer a far better cost benefit ratio.

The proposed tunnel is intended to overcome environmental and archaeological concerns about an above ground widening of the road in that sensitive area.

It is my personal view that the most practical way to resolve the bottleneck at Stonehenge is to find an acceptable alternative route for the A303 avoiding the most sensitive areas or to go ahead with widening, more or less on the current route, but using construction technologies that minimise the environmental impact of the work.

However, the political battles that surround a decision like that will not be fought in the months immediately before a General Election when both the coalition partners have marginal seats to contest in the South West.

I should also sound a note of caution in respect to the announced programme.

Many of the road schemes in the roads programme do not have planning permission, which can take years for major schemes. It is a common joke among transport ministers and ex-ministers that no minister ever gets to open a road scheme that he/she announced the funding for and many a proposed scheme has lost its funding, or given way to a different idea, before the bulldozers move in.

Whilst I don't doubt the positive intention behind the programme, I do doubt that the final outcome will look exactly like the list in the press release.

Finally, another less high profile proposal has emerged that could turn out to have greater impact than the Highways Agency becoming a public company.

Most roads are not managed by the Highways Agency but by local councils and the Government is pushing forward with structural reforms to establish and manage combined authorities and their major transport responsibilities.

They are proposing legislation to allow local authorities without directly connected borders to form combined authorities or economic prosperity boards, and for County Councils to delegate transport powers to these combined authorities.

People travel from their homes to their place of work, or from their workplace to their customer or to the place a meeting is held, they don't plan their travel according to local authority boundaries.

If the proposals allow local authorities to create structures that can plan road or transport investment within economically functional areas, then we may open the door to sensible strategic road planning in some areas where it currently does not happen.

To find out more about how Clearview Traffic are helping to transform road networks and to ease congestion in the UK, please get in touch here.

Author: |Date Published: February 2015


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