Two hugely important things strike me about England’s mega £15.7bn roads programme, full details of which were unveiled this week.
The first is the genuinely impressive way the Department for Transport has sought to develop a real strategic spatial vision for England’s highway network. That vision will be realised with Smart Motorways becoming the standard for the busiest sections of the motorway network with 1,000km planned by 2040; by transforming the busiest A-roads into expressways with consistent standards and expectations around performance; and significantly, by filling in the gaps in the network through a series of specific, high-profile new road schemes.
The government has pledged to spend £3.5bn on 20 such schemes in the next parliament, including, most notably, a 2.9km long tunnel around Stonehenge and dualling of the whole of the A303 as far as Taunton in the South West.
It’s great to see such strategic thinking. It’s a recognition that to solve these serious transport problems serious money must be spent. Stonehenge is great example of that: the previously proposed scheme was far too short; it immediately put the transport lobby on collision course with the heritage and environmental lobby. This time it is different; it is more grown up.
And it leads straight to the second hugely important thing: many of these schemes are technically complex and very environmentally sensitive. After all, if they weren’t they would have been built by now.
We are now not just talking about tunnelling under Stonehenge. We are also now seriously looking at a trans-Pennine tunnel to transform connectivity in the North. We are talking about tackling the horrendously congestion on the M25 around Heathrow. And we are talking about an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, a high-quality dual-carriageway across open Buckinghamshire countryside.
These are complex schemes. And the fact that they are all in this week’s strategy documents means one thing: that there is now real confidence in the UK civils sector to design and build these kind of schemes; to do so sensitively, efficiently, and with little fuss or disruption. It is a ringing endorsement of our industry; of our skills. And that is a hugely important thing.
And that leads to a challenge: don’t mess it up. Do these schemes right: engage with the public and the vested interest groups; embrace best practice and the latest technologies to speed delivery and to minimise disruption in use. Above all prove the role the engineer plays in creating a healthy, wealthy society.
This really is a wonderful chance to transform impressions of our industry; to use that £15.7bn investment in the oldest form of infrastructure going - roads - to show that we now do things differently. The government believes that this investment will deliver over £4 of benefit for every £1 spent and will save lives, preventing over 2,500 deaths or serious injuries on the network over five years.
It should make those who don’t know what civil engineering does sit up and take note. It is a fabulous opportunity.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor