Ian Barlex reports on the House of Commons Transport Committee’s examination of the future for the Strategic Road Network.

Role and constitution of the Transport Committee

The role of the Committee is to scrutinise the policies, administration and expenditure of the Department for Transport (DfT) and associated bodies. It conducts wide-ranging examinations, with current examples including the effect of the winter floods on the railways; the safety of cyclists; and the provision of passenger transport services to isolated communities. In each case, oral and written evidence is taken from a broad group of stakeholders and interested parties.

The Committee comprises 11 Members of Parliament drawn from the three largest parties, who are appointed by the House of Commons. Current composition is five members each from the Conservative and Labour parties, with one Liberal Democrat. The Committee is chaired by Mrs Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a former Leader of Lancashire County Council.

The Strategic Road Network

The Strategic Road Network (SRN) comprises the motorways and major trunk roads in England, which are crucial to the movement of travellers and freight around the country.

Construction and maintenance of these roads is the responsibility of the Highways Agency, which is an executive agency of the DfT. Other roads in England are managed by local authorities, while trunk roads and motorways in Scotland and Wales are the responsibility of Transport Scotland and the Welsh Assembly, respectively.

Despite its importance, it is generally felt that the SRN has been the victim of regular government policy changes and an inconsistent funding process over several decades. However, pressure on the network is mounting, because the DfT has predicted that its traffic levels will have increased by 46% by 2040.

Background

In 2011, the then incoming non-executive Chairman of the Highways Agency wrote a paper entitled A Fresh Start for the Strategic Road Network, which was published by the DfT. The paper reviewed the state of the road network and the role of the Highways Agency, and made a number of recommendations. These included the proposal that the DfT should publish a long-term strategy for motorways and trunk roads; that there should be a five-year funding package for the road network; and that the Highways Agency should have a change of structure — to be more independent of Government and to follow successful infrastructure companies.

In July 2013, the Government put a paper before Parliament entitled Action for Roads – A Network for the 21st Century. This followed the paper previously mentioned and made significant proposals. These included a £24 billion funding package for maintenance and expansion of capacity of the SRN, and a requirement that the DfT should bring before Parliament, before the 2015 election, a comprehensive Roads Investment Strategy, setting out plans for the network through to the year 2021. The report also proposed a restructuring of the Highways Agency to turn it into a GoCo (Government-owned Company), with a six-year funding settlement for the period 2015–2021.

The Transport Committee decided to undertake an investigation into the SRN following the publication of this paper, after receiving a number of representations from members of the public (the Committee regularly invites the public to suggest areas that it should scrutinise). It called for evidence in September 2013; in the event, written evidence was received from 60 parties, and four sessions were held to take oral evidence. Members of the Committee also visited the USA and Canada to examine their approaches to the operation and funding of major roads.

The Committee’s findings

Demand modelling

The first area addressed was demand modelling, and the potential accuracy of the DfT’s estimates of future road use. These estimates are based on output from the National Transport Model (NTM), a controversial tool in that its outputs are contested vigorously by those who do and do not respectively support the notion of increasing road capacity. The Committee heard from both sides of the argument; what was clear through the DfT’s evidence was that the model is vulnerable to government and local authority policy changes, and that it does have some shortcomings — for example, it does not account for changes in the availability of parking, which are of course a significant influencing factor on decisions to make journeys by car. It had also failed to predict recent changes to traffic levels in London.

Arising from this, the Committee recommended that the NTM be opened up to wider scrutiny, and that the DfT must develop a more transparent and comprehensive system of road planning as part of a wider national transport strategy.

Route strategies

The DfT proposed a programme of route-based strategies in its report. This process was welcomed by business organisations but opposed by environmentalists, who fear congestion resulting from induced demand. Several respondents called for integrated route-based strategies, including both road and rail modes. The Committee looked at route strategies on its visits abroad and took into account the DfT’s own managed motorway schemes and associated local authority programmes (such as park and ride).

The Committee’s recommendation is that the DfT should commission integrated passenger and freight plans for strategic routes and areas, and should not look at roads alone. This process should include local participation and should be set out in the Roads Investment Strategy, and be closely monitored.

Highways Agency

The proposal to restructure the Highways Agency as a GoCo was supported by the organisation’s current Chief Executive and by representatives of the civil engineering contracting industry, but others were sceptical, arguing that reform would simply produce outputs that could be achieved under the current model, but at the cost of higher salaries. Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the DfT, said that the organisation, in its new form, would be able to let longer contracts, bringing certainty to the industry and delivering better value.

After hearing the evidence, the Committee indicated in its report that it, too, is not convinced of the case for change. It believes that the Highways Agency will not have new remits or funding streams, will still be subject to government policy changes, and that the claimed benefits can be achieved through the current model.

Finance

Finance was considered in detail from the point of view of the proposed funding stream, and whether that would be adequate. Consideration was also given to the subject of road user charging, with a number of contributors suggesting that this would be the most effective way to fund the future network. There was a spirited discussion on the principle of hypothecation — whether funds raised from charging would actually reach the roads network, especially if a new charging scheme involved changes to other motoring taxation.

The Committee noted that Mr Goodwill was clear that road user charging, beyond the current HGV scheme, was not proposed. However, it stressed that the volume of finance required to support the development necessary to accommodate the projected growth, accompanied by a likely reduction in income from fuel duty (due to more fuel efficient vehicles), would represent a significant challenge. It recognised that many issues would need to be tackled ahead of any charging system, and that a broad concensus of support would be necessary.

Further progress on this will be reported in Croner-i Road Transport Expert.

Last reviewed 28 May 2014