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Promises with a bite

Shadow transport minister Bernard Jenkin's party conference speech last week made sweeping promises about road transport under the Tories. Damian Arnold looks at the detail.

Tackling the neglected road transport system in the UK is one of Bernard Jenkin's primary goals.

Of course there is much to be gained by capitalising on the public perception of Labour's anti-car Government.

Jenkin plans to introduce a bill to ensure that his proposed Roads Inspectorate would have the teeth to snap at the heels of local authorities and the Highways Agency if the standard of Britain's roads fell short of the mark.

And while the industry has been congratulating the Government on the quantum leap in road building and maintenance funding promised in the 10 year transport plan, the Tory party has gone on the offensive.

Backed by road user groups such as the British Roads Federation, it claims a desperate need for this independent body to to 'champion the interests of the road user' because 'roads is the last great public utility that doesn't have an independent regulator'.

Industry reaction to the proposals is predictably mixed.

Chief economist for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Jim Turner asserts that the private sector is ready and willing to take over from poorly performing local authorities.

'There is no shortage of private sector companies who are well equipped to take on the job and a number of local authorities already outsource much of the management of their roads to the private sector, ' he said.

'It's extremely important to set some industry standards for road management, ideally as part of an overall independent transport authority, ' Turner adds. 'It's logical that there should be powers in roads similar to those exercised by the Strategic Rail Authority to strip Train Operating Companies of their franchises.'

It is a fact that a roads inspectorate would work well once a robust set of generic standards was developed, said the AA's head of policy John Dawson. 'It's too early to draw conclusions on whether some local authorities are performing or not until things like accidents statistics can be compared fairly.'

Dawson added that the AA Foundation for Road Safety is working on a set of generic standards that would allow for a fairer comparison between local authorities. 'At the moment funding is given out per head rather than on density of highway and some authorities have done very badly out of that.'

But County Surveyors' Society president Edward Chorlton leads the chorus of disapproval from local authorities. He says: 'What is really missing at the moment is not so much a road inspectorate to ensure local authorities do what they are supposed to do but an adequate resource level for them to do the job in the first place.'

He points to the problems highlighted year on year by the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey and the huge backlog in road maintenance and many accident blackspots that have not been addressed.

However, this is expected to be resolved in the long run by the £30bn announced by Government for local authorities over the next 10 years. According to Professor of transport infrastructure at Imperial College Stephen Glaister, an independent road watchdog would ensure that new money for transport was spent on transport.

He said: 'Local authorities still have some discretion on what they choose to spend their money on and some of the money given for roads still goes to other things.'

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