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Contractors celebrate as Highways Agency reforms given green light

Civils contractors are celebrating the government’s decision to back proposals to change the way major roads in England are managed and funded.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin yesterday rubber stamped the reforms after extensive consultation.

The plans involve making the Highways Agency a government-owned company with a fixed, long term budget. They will now go to Parliament and could be in force within a year.

Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Ceca) chief executive Alasdair Reisner told NCE the minister’s statement was significant. “The fact the announcement has happened is in itself encouraging,” he said. “The consultation could have led to the process being derailed.

“We will see what happens when the legislation enters the House of Commons, but this is an important event.”

Ceca is fully behind the reforms, believing they will bring the funding certainty needed to allow contractors to make long-term staffing and procurement decisions. It argues this will increase the efficiency of roads projects.

“In the past, the roads sector has suffered from boom-and-bust conditions that are hugely damaging to the smooth delivery of projects,” said Reisner.

“Long-term stability and certainty of investment will give our members and the Highways Agency good visibility in planning their work, while providing the supply chain with greater confidence in developing its workforce to meet future demands.”

The government is to spend more than £24bn to upgrade England’s strategic road network between 2010 and 2021.

It claimed the changes to the Agency will save the taxpayer at least £2.6bn over the next decade, and make the new company more accountable to Parliament and road users.

McLoughlin said: “Our road network is an incredibly important national asset, but it has been neglected.

“This government has committed to the biggest ever investment in our roads but it is vital we have the right foundations in place to make sure this huge amount of money is spent in the most efficient way.

“The reformed Highways Agency will be more transparent and more accountable, driving down costs as it increases efficiency.”

Two bodies will be created to hold the reformed company to account – one to protect the interests of road users, the other to oversee the roads network and watch over costs and perfor- mance.

The Department for Transport is also to set out detailed plans for the board of the strategic highways company; appointments; sanctions that might apply to the new company; decisions about plan ning powers; and the company’s role in the planning process.

When the plans to reform the Agency were proposed that Reisner predicted that some form of road user charging may become necessary to maintain levels of funding. “I don’t think it is essential at this stage as the government has committed to funding,” he said yesterday.

“It would be nice if it did not need to happen. But it’s a reality; it needs to be seriously considered further down the line.”

Government plans for the Highways Agency

The government response to the reform proposals consultation excercise confirmed its intention to:

  • Transform the Highways Agency into a government-owned, strategic highways company with the legal powers and duties to manage and run the roads. It will be appointed under the terms of a licence from the transport secretary, which sets clear conditions about how the company must act
  • Put in place a robust system of governance for the company, giving the road operator the flexibility to operate, manage and enhance the strategic road network effectively, while ensuring accountability to the transport secretary, Parliament and road users
  • Establish – for the first time – a road investment strategy, which will detail the company’s performance standards and the investment programme it will deliver over the next five years. This will be published before the end of the year
  • Set up new, discrete units within Passenger Focus and the Office of Rail Regulation – to represent the interests of strategic road network users. They will monitor the efficiency and performance of the company.

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