With plans ahead to triple the spending on road building in the next parliament - proposing £24 billion of road investments over the next six years and £50 billion for the strategic road network over the next 15 years that arise from its Action for roads programme presented last July - the government launched a consultation in October 2013 setting out its plans for the national and local road networks and changes to the Highways Agency.
In addition to the accelerated programme of road building, based on projections of traffic growth made by the Department for Transport National Transport Model (NTM), it proposed that the Highways Agency be changed to a government-owned company (GoCo) to support the ‘more ambitious infrastructure programme’ and have a ‘more business-like approach’.
As a result, on 29 April 2014 the government’s response to (it’s own) consultation was published confirming the intention to:
set up the Highways Agency as a government-owned strategic highways company – with the legal powers and duties to manage and run the roads, appointed by licence from the Secretary of State for Transport which sets conditions about how the company must act;
put in place a “robust system of governance” for this company;
establish a ‘Road investment strategy’ which will detail the performance standards the company will achieve and an investment programme it will deliver over the next 5 years;
set up new, discrete units within Passenger Focus and the Office of Rail Regulation – to represent the interests of all those who use and rely upon the strategic road network, and to monitor the efficiency and performance of the company;
As a result, in less than 12 months the Highways Agency is set to be made into a government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and strategic A-road network.
Following approval by The Transport Secretary of the reform following the consultation on the government’s proposals, the results of which were published on 30 April 2014, DfT will now work to introduce the legislation needed to underpin these changes and plans to bring the new company into operation in April 2015.
A wider national transport strategy proposed by House of Commons Transport Committee
Among responses to the consultation was the report “Better roads: Improving England's Strategic Road Network”, produced by House of Commons Transport Committee arising from its inquiry launched in September 2013 into the government’s Action for roads proposal.
The report Better roads: Improving England's Strategic Road Network (published 29 April 2014) is interesting reading, providing historical background to the planned tripling of road building that is planned, an examination into the traffic modelling used as the basis for predicted traffic growth driving the plans and gaps in consideration of roads within the wider transport system, particularly that “road users deserve clarity on how roads can be part of a high quality integrated transport system”.
Transparent system of road planning
The report states that, if new funding streams such as road pricing were to be required to pay for the improvements that first a consensus would be required - and “the many issues involved would have to be resolved”.
It also suggests that the DfT “must develop a transparent system of road planning as part of wider national transport strategy”, plus the National Transport Model (NTM) should be subject to scrutiny.
In its enquiry the committee found that, unlike for Treasury forecasts, the NTM was not open for external assessment. It also pointed out that it failed to predict changes to traffic levels in London, and over-emphasised on the effects of economic growth while ignoring the effects of changes to planning rules (recent slight increases in traffic volume was suggested as bearing more relation to changes in parking availability due to local authority planning relaxations than economic growth).
Shouldn’t look at one mode in isolation
According to the transport committee, the DfT “should commission integrated passenger and freight plans for strategic transport routes or regions, rather than looking at one mode of transport in isolation”.
Such integrated plans, it asserts, should be developed in consultation with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and community and road user groups, taking into account how different options for the use of infrastructure and technology will impact on transport movements and on economic development.
Investment Strategy Trial case study
During its inquiry, the committee visited an “investment strategy trial” in Virginia, USA where part of the Interstate 95 road is trialling a package of measures to better integrate the road with other modes of transport.
The Virginia scheme involved an integrated programme of measures designed to make travellers aware of alternative means of transport, to deal quickly with accidents and other obstructions to traffic flow and to reduce the congestion caused by commuters using the busiest sections of strategic road during the peak period. It was cited as a good example how a strategic road, public transport and local investment strategy might be devised and implemented along a ‘corridor of need’.
The measures included:
expanding the collection of real time traffic flow data and making it available publicly through road signs, web data and apps;
improving the speed at which accidents and other incidents can be resolved by locating highway controllers in the same building as the emergency services;
providing information to travellers about routes by alternative modes of travel during periods of congestion;
promoting ride sharing for car users, especially commuters;
encouraging commuters to change their time of travel;
promoting flexible working as a policy for employers;
prioritising buses, coaches and ride sharing on sections of road heavily used by commuters, through building high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes;
expanding park and ride schemes;
introducing managed motorways with hard shoulder running on selected sections of route.
Not convinced of need for GoCo
The Transport Select Committee was also “not convinced” of need for GoCo, but if it is formed it considered that the scrutiny body would need full regulatory authority and the GoCo must view road users as customers and other organisations as partners in delivery of an integrated transport network.
Department for Transport to set out detailed plans for the new company in the coming months and Road investment strategy by end of year
In its 30 April announcement the Department for Transport said in its it will set out detailed plans for the board of the new strategic highways company and appointments, sanctions that might apply to the new company, decisions on planning powers and the company’s role in the planning process - “on the coming months”.
The government plans to make drafts of the governance documentation, including licence, the framework agreement and the articles of association, available over the summer and publish its ‘Road investment strategy’ before the end of the year.
Government promises to respond to Transport Committee's report
The Transport Select Committee since published a Letter from Robert Goodwill MP concerning reform of the Highways Agency dated 30 April 2014 to accompnay the Government's response to its consultation stating that the government had received just over 100 responses to the consultation approximately two thirds of which came from stakeholder organisations including road user groups, business and supply chain organisations, local bodies, environmental bodies and campaign groups - and at around a third from members of the public. The majority of organisations were "largely" supportive of the proposals, although some neighbours of the public were generally more sceptical.
The Highways Agency's cost and efficiency monitor and road watchdog roles will formally exist as part of the existing bodies - the Office Of Rail Regulation (ORR) and Passenger Focus respectively. Both he said, already have a clear independent existence set out in statute by including both functions within a system bodies. Being in existing bodies should ensure that "both functions are in place and fully ready to hold the company to account from day one".
In conclusion, Robert Goodwill said that the reforms strengthen accountability, drive efficiency, and increase transparency, while retaining staff and be business like. It will also create more reliable conditions for investment enabling the supply chain to gear up the delivering the government plans to support the economy, jobs and skills and ultimately transform the quality of national infrastructure.
The minister said he plans to respond to the transport committee's Better Roads enquiry - and will make available drafts of the governance documentation of the new company, as well as the business case for reform of the Highways Agency and further details about the Road Investment Strategy over the summer.