Last reviewed 18 July 2017

A nudge for the low-carbon electrification of England’s road and motorway network in June’s Queen’s Speech is one of many changes the national highway system is set to see. Meanwhile, a radical road strategy launched in 2015 may need tweaking, a new report has found.

Electric vehicles are absolutely central to the UK’s environmentally-responsible, low-carbon, renewable energy-based and energy secure future. The Government is a fervent believer. To encourage us to put our foot down on the quiet, smoothly-accelerating electric pedal, Ministers took action in June’s Queen’s Speech.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill included in the Queen’s Speech will make providing electric vehicles charging points mandatory at petrol and motorway services. It will also extend car insurance to cover automated — driverless — vehicles controlled by algorithms that in theory at least are more energy-efficient.

Green electrification is one of a series of deep-seated changes in the pipeline. Innovations could eventually include overhead catenary power lines — similar to major inter-city train routes — taking thousands of polluting diesel HGVs off motorways, a wave of new 5G-enabled smart technology, and even thousands of tonnes of plastic waste turned into durable road surfaces.

Yet although the ambitions are high, the National Audit Office (NAO) would like to see fine details of the England’s relatively-young road-building strategy worked out more convincingly this summer.

The UK Road Investment Strategy

Building new roads has traditionally been a haphazard affair in Britain. The Road Investment Strategy (RIS) was introduced in 2015 by the Coalition Government to provide a regular flow of funding for the Strategic Road Network (SRN), or trunk roads of England. The plan included a conversion of the old Highways Agency into what was meant to be a new and more effective Government-owned company called Highways England. In parallel, fixed-funding periods known as “Road Periods” were also introduced with the aim of increasing construction rates.

The first RIS-phase — RIS 1 — saw £15 billion committed to more than 100 priority schemes, including flagship programmes such as the Stonehenge Tunnel and Huntingdon Southern Bypass. Part of the remit for Highways England was its ability to save a projected £2.5 billion by 2025. Smooth funding was to be enabled by the Infrastructure Act 2015 designed to make planning easier and cut red tape.

Against criticism that this was simply a re-branding of wasted taxpayer’s money, it is argued that the focus was changing to being more driver-orientated than politically-orientated.

Removing uncertainty

The Highways Agency had previously faced uncertainty, with progress often hampered by funding fits and starts and the threat of “watered down” schemes that failed to deliver their intended benefits. Road Periods are intended to end this.

Other RIS 1 targets included helping to prevent more than 2500 road deaths and serious injuries annually, constructing more than 1300 additional miles of road lanes, improving 200 sections of cycle network and reducing noise impact for more than 250,000 people.

Key schemes have been: improvements to sections of the A1, dualling of the A453 in Nottinghamshire, plus widening of the A12 to Colchester. A new class of road, Expressways, was also introduced to ensure motorway-standard journey times and safety on less substantial routes.

RIS 2 is designed to continue progress in the five-year period leading up to 2020. It is backed by six strategic studies of some of the largest road network challenges facing drivers nationally. These include a northern Trans-Pennine route between the A66 and A69, additions to the M60 around northwest Manchester, A1 improvements between the M25 and Peterborough, an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway and M25 southwest quadrant upgrades.

Some 18 route strategies were marked down to be revisited and refreshed to identify and remove pressures on the entire “strategic road network”.

At the time of its launch, RIS 2 was described as being supported by “every single penny” of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) from 2020 ring-fenced to create a National Roads Fund underpinned by legislation.

Taking stock

Political and financial climates move on. In March 2017, the NAO released the results of a review warning that a period of reflection was necessary to achieve these early ambitions. Specifically, it said that the Department for Transport and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if optimising progress and value for the RIS is to be achieved.

NAO added that two years into the first five-year road investment plan, the far-reaching strategy devised to bring improvements itself now needs to be pulled back on track. Going further, NAO says “decisive action” is needed before the updated RIS delivery plan is published in the summer. NAO points to the speed with which the strategy was originally formulated in just 17 months ahead of the 2015 general election as the cause of “deliverability, affordability and value for money” risks.

Going further, it adds that the department selected projects without knowing if they represented the best value. It also says that the department set a capital programme forecast that exceeded funding by £652 million, “over-programming” that was standard practice in the Highways Agency on the assumption that some schemes would inevitably be held back or fall from the portfolio. Over-planning costs later rose much further.

Progress to date

So far, six projects are said to have finished ahead of schedule. Work will begin on another 19. Highways England estimates these will be 5% over budget. However, it did meet its 2015–2016 efficiency targets by £33 million; it expects to do better in 2016–2017. Even so, it is left with having to make 70% of its savings target of £1.2 billion in the last two years of the half-decade period. Workloads are increasing. Expert staff shortages are also a concern.

Down-scaling project designs, cancelling projects and delaying projects are once again tools at its disposal to smooth out the roads delivery profile and reduce disruption.

The NAO wants the Department and Highways England to issue a statement this summer setting out the impacts of a revised programme. It also urges the department to re-evaluate its oversight of Highways England, plus the sheer size and complexity of its road investment portfolio.

Positive news

Against this qualified background, there is also substantial good news for the over-stretched highways network and long-suffering motorists.

An example is the Government’s April decision to build a new £4.4 billion, 70 mph, 13-mile-long Lower Thames Crossing. This will be in the form of a tunnel east of Gravesend and Tilbury predicted to “unlock” £8 billion of economic benefits and create 6000 new jobs.

Journey times will improve; capacity will increase by 70% says Highways England which is responsible for delivering the crossing taking traffic loads off the Dartford Tunnel and Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. Links will be provided to the M25 between junctions 29 and 30 and to the A2 east. The decision is said to be underpinned by years of study and consultation with more than 47,000 people.

Currently, 55 million journeys are made annually via the Dartford Crossing, six million more than it was designed for. Closures due to traffic incidents occur almost daily.

Traffic volumes rise

The background road use data is not particularly positive from a sustainable perspective. Overall road use increased in the year to December 2016. Figures released in February show a record 320.5 billion vehicle miles motored — 1.2% higher than in the previous 12 months and 2% higher than the 2007 pre-recession peak.

Car traffic volumes rose by 0.7% to a record 249.5 billion vehicle miles; van use rose by 3.4% to 48.5 billion miles. HGV traffic rose by an overall 2.8%, reaching record levels on motorways.

Going back to low-carbon motorway innovations, Siemens says it can power unlimited-range electric trucks with 150-year-old overhead power cable technology, but this could be complex and costly. The concept is to recharge trucks on major routes but then rely on large, heavy, high-cost batteries or fuel cells for ordinary roads.

Plastic future

There are other down-to-earth technical solutions. To minimise raw materials use and reuse waste sustainably, Scottish Entrepreneur and Engineer Toby McCartney’s start-up company, MacRebur, is showing how huge tonnages of carefully selected local plastic waste could potentially be used as an asphalt binder additive.

Instead of going to landfill, plastic waste could be used on building new roads, maintenance, and pothole repair, saving millions of pounds in the process. It would also improve strength, durability, and reduce the quantity of oil-based bitumen used traditionally. Roads would last longer. Two local authorities in Cumbria are trialling the process.