Civils contractors have welcomed a significant milestone for government plans to radically overhaul the way road schemes are delivered.
The Infrastructure Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons this week and will enter a final period of negotiation in February as it is readied for Royal Assent.
While some additional clauses were added, notably to increase fracking safeguards and promote walking and cycling, the roads reforms remained firmly intact.
“Highways reforms went through largely unopposed,” said Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner. “This was a huge and important step forward.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of how important this Bill is. It will mean real change to the way the Highways Agency works, and commits to a long-term investment plan that will give better outcomes on critical roads projects.”
The next stage for the Bill is the evocatively named Ping Pong phase, where both houses of Parliament refine its wording before presenting it for Royal Assent.
This final rubber stamp must be given before 30 March, when Parliament breaks for the General Election, or the legislation will be scrapped. Reisner said he was hopeful that this timetable could be met.
Roads minister John Hayes said during the Commons debate ahead of the Bill’s third reading: “The Bill will transform the quality of our roads infrastructure, secure delivery, drive growth and provide the network operator with the stability needed to deliver a better service for those who rely on and use our roads, as well as generating £2.6bn over 10 years in additional savings.
“These changes will provide certainty for the industry and help it to get ready for the significant increases in investment over the next few years, with the confidence to recruit and train skilled workers. That confidence will mean that suppliers can build capability for the future and sign longer-term contracts with a new company at reduced cost to the taxpayer.”
Graham Dalton announced he would leave his role as chief executive of the Highways Agency this summer.
He has led the body for seven years but will handover the reigns as it transforms to government-owned Highways England.
Dalton said: “Highways England, which will come into being in April following Royal Assent of the government’s Infrastructure Bill, will need a chief executive who can commit to delivering the first Roads Investment Strategy which runs to 2020.
“I will work with chairman Colin Matthews to ensure an orderly handover to my successor in the summer.”
Meanwhile, a clause proposing strict conditions under which exploration for shale gas would be allowed, led by Labour MP Tom Greatrex, was successfully added to the Infrastructure Bill.
This would effectively ban fracking without independent inspections of wells; within a groundwater source protection zone; and without individual notification of residents; among other measures.
Greatrex said: “This is a huge U-turn by the government and big victory for the protection of Britain’s environment.
“Scottish Labour has always said that shale gas extraction cannot go ahead unless there is a system of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection.
“Now, thanks to Labour’s amendment, the government has been forced to accept that tough protections and proper safeguards must be in place before fracking can go ahead.”
Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing announced a moratorium on consents for “unconventional oil and gas developments” in Scotland, while further research and a public consultation is carried out.
Meanwhile, an amendment to force ministers to set cycling and walking strategies among their transport plans was added to the Bill.
The clause will require transport secretaries to put such a strategy in place “as soon as reasonably practicable”.
Hayes said in Parliament: “It would be ironic to have a road investment strategy without having a walking and cycling strategy alongside it. That case was made by cyclists here in the House and beyond, and it is a persuasive one.”