The government yesterday (28 October 2014) published its plans for oversight of a reformed Highway’s Agency, confirming not only that the model of rail regulation and consumer representation would be replicated, but it will expand the roles of the same bodies to also monitor the performance standards of the road network.
The reform of the Highways Agency and introduction of the Infrastructure Bill, which was introduced in Parliament earlier this year, is designed to help implement its commitment to spend £30 to £50 billion to improve our roads the next 15 years.
This includes investment of £24 billion in national roads, a trebling of previous investment, by 2020, to ensure ‘long term certainty in unlocking economic growth’.
Costs savings and making Highways Agency more accountable
Under government plans the Highways Agency will be changed to a government-owned company responsible for over 4,300 miles of motorways and major roads – giving the agency more flexibility to manage the road network on a daily basis.
The changes to the Highways Agency will, according to the government, save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years and will make the new company more accountable to Parliament and road users.
Two new bodies will hold the new agency to account for road users, taxpayers and government.
Two bodies to scrutinise the operation of the Road Network
As part of the reforms to the Highways Agency and the Strategic Roads Network, introduced as part of its Infrastructure Bill, the Government has announced that it intends to create two bodies to scrutinise the operation of the Strategic Road Network and provide advice to the Secretary of State.
A ‘Watchdog’ responsible for gathering the views of Strategic Road Network users and using them to shape policy and decision-making. This function will be carried out by Transport Focus – a restructured and renamed Passenger Focus, incorporating a dedicated Strategic Roads Network element (Transport Focus - Road Users).
A ‘Monitor’ that analyses the performance and efficiency of the new strategic highways company (SHC), checking to see that the SHC is complying with the terms of its licence and delivering what is required under the Road Investment Strategy. This function will be carried out by the Strategic Road Network Monitor (SRNM), a unit which sits as a semi-autonomous part of the Office of Rail Regulation and which will work solely on roads.
The document states that both bodies will be independent of government, and will provide ‘strong advice to the Secretary of State that genuinely reflects experience on the ground’.
'They will also act as an important channel through which key stakeholders can help to hold the SHC to account. The reports of both bodies will be published to add an unprecedented level of transparency to the operation of the Strategic Road Network. The monitor will also be able use new statutory powers to hold the SHC directly to account, like the regulators in other sectors. Taken together these measures will have involve a step change on both efficiency and accountability.’
The new road monitor, run by the Office of Rail Regulation(ORR), will have powers to issue fines, to make sure that the new highways company delivers what it has promised and honours the conditions of its licence.
User champion Passenger Focus, which represents bus, coach and tram passengers and has worked for rail passengers for more than 60 years, will in future represent users of the strategic road network. This includes motorists and business users, as well as cyclists and walkers. This will involve major annual surveys, as well as research into road users’ top problems.
To reflect this new remit, the organisation has announced it will change its name to Transport Focus, with its existing work carried out by ‘Transport Focus – passengers’, and its new work under ‘Transport Focus – road users’.
Changes also being introduced as amendments to the bill include the power for the ORR to carry out independent enforcement activity if the highways company fails to deliver and new powers expanding the remit of Transport Focus.
Both bodies will be awarded more funding and will expand their operations so their existing work will not be affected.
Making sure road users’ voices are heard and that decisions made are accountable to taxpayers
Road Minister John Hayes said, “The reform of the Highways Agency and the introduction of a long term vision for the road network is at the heart of this government’s £24 billion commitment to improving our road network and ensuring long term certainty in unlocking economic growth.”
“These changes along with the introduction of a new road monitor and watchdog, will make sure road users’ voices are heard and that decisions made are accountable to taxpayers, building on the good work that the Office of Rail Regulator and Passenger Focus do now.”
The Infrastructure Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent by March 2015.
Bringing expertise from users of public transport
Passenger Focus responded to the announcement by stating it hoped to make a difference for many road users by bringing its expertise from supporting users of public transport to shape the debate over roads.
Its Chief Executive Anthony Smith said, “We are pleased to be asked to take on this extension of our remit, which makes sense as we have a strong record of using evidence to make a difference for public transport passengers.
“We will now take this expertise and aim to help those using the strategic road network in England, including for freight as well as personal or business journeys. Passenger Focus remains fully committed to its work on rail, bus, coach and tram passenger issues.”
Viewing the environment in terms of ‘the view out of the car window’
Motorists groups were reported to have reacted positively to the changes but The Campaign to Protect Rural England claimed the Department for Transport plans to run the roads system were ‘short-sighted’.
Ralph Smyth, transport campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said “Government claims of a long-term vision for roads simply don’t add up. Its new roads watchdog, Transport Focus, would be so short-sighted that it could only consider the environment in terms of ‘the view out of the car window’. Anything beyond that, such as the air or noise pollution faced by communities living alongside roads, or the potential for new coach services or safe cycle routes, would be out of its focus."
“With some of the lowest cycling and bus use in Europe, plus some of the worst air quality and noise impacts from roads, we urgently need to see a change in direction. But while proper scrutiny of the wider impacts of roads policy would help us catch up with the progress made by neighbouring countries, it could damage the Government’s case for the biggest roads programme since the 1970s.”