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Autumn Budget | Industry sceptical of £30bn roads investment

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Industry leaders have aired scepticism of chancellor Phillip Hammond’s Autumn Budget pledge of £30bn for transport upgrades.

While £28.8bn has been ring-fenced for the government’s Major Roads Fund to finance new road schemes over the next five years, a further £420M will be released immediately to local authorities to fix potholes, repair damaged roads and “keep bridges safe and open”. 

Hammond also allocated £37M of additional funding to further develop plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield, and £20M has been set aside to develop the central section of East West Rail connecting Oxford to Cambridge.   

Hammond also confirmed that private finance initiative (PFI) contracts will be abolished, and said that the government will continue to work with investors to increase the use of public/private finance partnerships for infrastructure projects.

Industry leaders expressed fears that the roads funds could be delayed by regional and local authority “wrangling”, a  post-Brexit skills shortage and a lack of investment in future technologies.

Ramboll UK transport market director Alan Pauling said: “The challenge will be to ensure that it quickly gets onto the ground either on the strategic network or the larger, local authority controlled network.

“The boost to roads investment is welcome and it will be interesting to see the detail over the coming days. The Major Road Network, sitting alongside Highways England’s Strategic Network and trumpeted back in 2017, has yet to see the light of day. If the much needed benefit is to be felt then it is crucial that investment of this money is not delayed by local authority and regional wrangling about where it is to be spent.”

The first five schemes to benefit from the Major Road Network fund were announced by transport secretary Chris Grayling at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month.

They include the York Outer Ring Road, the Gallows Corner modernisation in East London and finding a solution to the farmyard bottleneck on the Grizebeck Bypass near Barrow in Furness. The A614 near Ollerton in Nottinghamshire and new slip roads in Thurrock have also got the go ahead.

While the scheme has been largely welcomed, Scape Group chief executive Mark Robinson warned that road projects could be hit by a post-Brexit skills shortage.

“Although a commitment to help local authorities make improvements is very promising, we need a workforce capable of delivering this change,” he said.

“With Brexit now just five months away, it is crucial we get serious about the skills shortage. If the government does not find innovative ways of attracting fresh talent to the sector, we run the risk of our road networks grinding to a halt.”

Topcon business development manager Andy McCann added: “There’s no question that the UK’s road network has been in need of an upgrade for some time.

“Chancellor Phillip Hammond [has announced] a £30bn package will be allocated to road upgrades, including repairs to motorways and potholes, but is the full picture being addressed within this budget?

“From initial road inspections to determine the current state through to ongoing maintenance, changing current ways of working and adopting smart technology can help ensure budgets are being used effectively to provide a better road network for motorists.”  

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