The Commons Transport Committee has published its report on the Department for Transport’s strategic road investment portfolios, urging the Government to ensure future Road Investment Strategy portfolios are deliverable and prioritise day-to-day maintenance over complex expansion projects.
It bases that view on increasing costs of projects, net zero commitments and ageing strategic road assets. Read the report here.
MPs argue that National Highways’ licence should include a formalised engagement process with sub-national transport bodies to convey regional priorities better. They also recommend the simplification of reporting on the delivery of RIS portfolios to ensure effective scrutiny of delivery progress.
The Chair of the Transport Committee, Iain Stewart MP, said: “National Highways overspent and underdelivered against its targets for RIS 1 yet became even more ambitious in RIS 2 despite problems with its first portfolio. Schemes have continually been pushed back, adding to confusion and uncertainty that the RIS process was designed to prevent.
“In addition, the evidence we received indicates that the majority of road users want the Government to prioritise keeping the network in good, safe condition. An adequate proportion of the Strategic Roads budget needs to be prioritised for such maintenance work.
“My Committee also believes that the Department for Transport needs to ensure that future Road Investment Strategies are deliverable and reconsider the viability of its expensive enhancement projects. The Department should introduce more robust measures to assess deliverability when setting a Road Investment Strategy and must also produce a plan for how it will better anticipate and deal with risks to timely delivery.
“We also received evidence raising concerns about the switch to electric vehicles happening swiftly enough to mitigate the added carbon emissions that will come from the predicted increase in traffic on the SRN. We advise the Government to model and report on options for managing future congestion levels rather than only enabling its growth via expansions of the SRN.
“Finally, we welcome the improvements that have been made in coordinating strategic road investments with regional priorities but we believe this can be further developed by formalising the engagement process with sub-national transport bodies.”
Some highlights of the report are:
Alignment with Government goals
The Government views the Strategic Road Network – 4,300 miles of motorways and major A roads – as a key driver of economic growth, but its road investments could impact its ambitions to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The Government’s strategy to decarbonise the sector relies on a rapid switch to zero-emission vehicles. However, DfT forecasts that SRN traffic will increase, and witnesses said there is a big risk that the uptake of clean vehicles will not be fast enough to mitigate this increase.
The Department plans to accommodate this demand through new roads and clean vehicles rather than considering steps to manage demand. Understanding the impact of reducing or maintaining SRN traffic would inform this debate. The Committee therefore calls on DfT to model and report on future scenarios where demand for the SRN is managed. It also argues for DfT to provide a strategy setting out how the SRN will meet the fuel needs for the future vehicle fleet and provide milestone targets for delivering the required infrastructure.
Meeting user priorities
In RIS 2, the Government planned a series of complex enhancement projects for the network which go beyond maintenance and involve construction to create new roads or lanes. While the road haulage sector was enthusiastic about these enhancements, the majority of individual road users would prefer maintenance and renewal of the existing SRN to be prioritised over its expansion.
The Committee recommends that future investment should focus more on maintenance and renewal of the existing SRN rather than brand new projects. The Government must make sufficient provision for both revenue and capital maintenance funds, and could make more funding available by cancelling complex and costly enhancement projects.
Portfolio planning & delivery
National Highways’ planning through RIS 1 and 2 was overly ambitious, which resulted in schemes consistently being pushed back. The National Audit Office has found that by 2025 National Highways will have completed less work on road enhancements and at a higher cost than originally planned.
There is a compelling case for each RIS portfolio to be smaller in scope to avoid continual deferral of projects from one RIS to the next, or for the Government to dedicate more resources to ensuring timely completion of projects.
Ministers should implement more robust and transparent measures so that a wider range of stakeholders can flag risks to schemes. DfT needs to ensure proposals can stand up to scrutiny against planning regulations in its National Policy Statement. It must also produce a plan for how it will better anticipate, assess and deal with risks to timely delivery, and ensure schemes remain on budget and value for money.
Engagement with sub-national transport bodies
Sub-national transport bodies (STBs) such as Transport for the North and Midlands Connect have no codified role in the prioritisation of RIS schemes despite good examples of collaborative planning between them and National Highways. The Committee recommends that National Highways’ licence be updated to include a formalised engagement process with all STBs. Their local knowledge will help National Highways gain a better understanding of potential risks and mitigations for individual schemes.
Reporting and transparency
Information about the progress of schemes in each RIS can be difficult to access and hard to cross reference due to the way updates are published annually, and at different times of the year, by the Office for Rail and Road, DfT and National Highways.
To boost transparency, DfT should work with National Highways to introduce a “live” dashboard with up-to-date information on schemes in each RIS. It should provide information on original and current: costs; Start of Work date; Open for Traffic date; and planning status (if applicable).
(Picture – House of Commons)