The emergence of a Major Road Network has come after hefty behind the scenes lobbying from local and regional transport bodies and is both a recognition of the significant gaps in the current Strategic Road Network but also of the likely impact on the motorist of trying to spend £5bn a year on such relatively limited network.
The Major Road Network will now share the ring-fenced National Road Fund when it becomes operational in 2020. The fund will be fed by monies collected from Vehicle Excise Duty and will be worth around £5bn a year. When the move was announced the cash was intended to be spent solely on Highways England’s network.
But Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan acknowledged the difficulties his agency would have with an investment programme of that scale at New Civil Engineer’s UK Transport conference last week. In response to questions on the National Road Network proposal he admitted that his agency would struggle to spend the cash without causing major disruption and inconvenience to road users.
In the past this might not have been considered a major problem in itself, but Highways England has a series of key performance indicators, and road user satisfaction is a major one of those.
Privately it is understood that O’Sullivan has recognised that his agency might get a better performance out of his network by investing some of his money in a MRN.
It also provides some breathing space of O’Sullivan’s stretched capital projects team. Already it is struggling to deliver the volume of schemes planned in the current RIS1 five year investment period, and with the arrival of the Fund in RIS2 the pace of delivery was going to have to significantly increase.
The worst case scenario being painted in the behind-the-scenes lobbying to the Department for Transport was that, with Highways England unable to keep pace with the programme, monies would go unspent and returned to the Treasury. That warning has been heeded.
The move has certainly been welcomed by transport lobby groups and regional bodies. Certainly leaders from Transport for the North, Transport for the West Midlands and England’s Economic Heartland were all in favour of a Major Road Network people taking a slice of Highways England’s pie when speaking at UK Transport last week.
And in direct response RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding was effusive: “This announcement recognises that many of the economically important routes that join up the country are the responsibility of cash-strapped local councils, rather than being centrally managed. In essence, the transport secretary is signalling a near doubling of the national road network to 13,000km,” he said.
But he did have a word of caution, noting that it would be “vital” to ensure that this is not done in a way that “undermines the funding certainty that is so much a cornerstone of Highways England and the Road Investment Strategy”.
So what does the move mean for civils contractors and consultants and the RIS gravy train? Clearly it means there will be less cash than expected spent by Highways England – through the replacement to its current Collaborative Delivery Framework.
Instead, this cash will likely be spent though an array local and regional transport bodies – which is going to mean more clients to get to know, more prequalification and more procurement. Which is probably not what civils contractors were really looking for.
So what next? The fund doesn’t come into effect until 2020. So that’s three years to fully scope out exactly what roads will form the MRN and develop coherent investment programme for them. That will be quite the challenge, with every authority and regional body certain to be pressing the case for investment in their area other any other. It feels like the consultants at least will be happy.