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Road plan falls short

Questions about future funding streams for Britain’s highways remained this week after the government’s long-awaited command paper on roads policy failed to suggest new ways to attract private finance.

The paper Action for Roads: A network for the 21st Century won industry praise by committing the government to providing the Highways Agency with “clear, long-term funding settlements” of at least five years, starting in 2015/16.

But industry insiders expressed disappointment that it fell short of providing the means to attract long-term private finance.

“Stop start funding has hampered the management of our strategic roads network for too long, so the provision of longer term funding certainty, and
a legal framework to support it,
is excellent news and should enable the industry to deliver highways work more efficiently, providing better value for taxpayers,” said ICE director general Nick Baveystock.

The five-year funding commitment is intended to allow the Agency to deliver a “comprehensive investment programme” for roads.

Modelled on Network Rail’s high level output specification (HLOS) the so-called Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) will set out the projects that will be tackled in each five year spending round and how they will work to support the economy and tackle congestion.

The paper says the Highways Agency will be transformed into an independent yet still publicly-owned “strategic highways company”. But it fails to give any more detail on how this will be achieved or how it will be held to account.

It says the government will consult on more detailed proposals, “including how we intend to bring about this reform”, “later in the year”.

Crucially, the paper also fails to identify how the reforms could lead to greater private investment in Britain’s roads.

Rolling out wider use of design, build, finance, operate contracts to upgrade and operate specific sections of road and moves towards a regulated utility model such as that used in the water sector were considered, it says, but cannot proposed at this stage.

“We are not bringing forward plans to adopt any of these models,” says the report.

“We recognise that further reform might have real benefits for motorists,” it adds. “We will therefore continue to examine whether there is a case for further change to the way we run the strategic road network in England,” it says.

“We will want to hear views from motoring groups, businesses and other people who might be affected by any change, to see whether there is a model for reform which all can trust.”

Roads experts were disappointed at the lack of detail about attracting private finance.

“Ministers say their proposals are all fully funded which is reassuring and suggest a larger share of the £33bn collected from drivers in vehicle excise and fuel duty alone will go back into the roads programme,” said RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister.

“However, this doesn’t quite answer the exam question the prime minster posed the Department for Transport and Treasury in March 2012 about how we get more private sector cash into improving roads,” said Glaister, referring David Cameron’s speech at the ICE last year (NCE 22 March 2012).

In the speech he said “we need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network; from sovereign wealth funds, from pension funds, from other investors.”

The ICE said it was time for a more comprehensive debate on how roads were paid for.

“For the national road network to provide the backbone of the economy more sustainable funding streams will be required,” said ICE director general Nick Baveystock.

“The intention to continue engagement and build public trust around perceived contentious funding models is welcome, but it is time for a more comprehensive debate on the feasibility of the options.

“The creation of a Transport Futures Board to investigate practicality, pricing, implementation, and set out the options at arm’s length from Government, could provide a vehicle,” he said.

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