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Which route for London's roads? London's road system is likely to face problems before the Greater London Authority is launched.

On the face of it, handing responsibility for London's busiest roads over to a single agency would seem a good idea. Rather than having some strategic routes managed by the boroughs and others by the Highways Agency, the planning of traffic works and co-ordination of traffic flows could be carried out by one body, with an overview of what is best for the whole of London.

Such plans are, of course, included in the Government's White Paper for a Greater London Authority and mayor for London. Exactly how the capital's strategic road network will look is currently two weeks into a broad consultation exercise, due to be completed at the start of August.

But not everyone is happy. Local authorities are already expressing alarm at the prospect of about 170km of roads being handed over to the GLA. They fear public confusion will result from the transfer of roads to the mayor - or more precisely the powerful new body Transport for London.

How will people distinguish between council controlled roads and TfL roads, when some boroughs are likely to have only a few kilometres of strategic roads?

To some degree the boroughs have a point. People are likely to ring their local council when they want to complain about a pothole or a street light being out. But if the road in question is a strategic route, the council will then have to call TfL before the repairs can be carried out. The extra tier equals more time, greater cost and an exasperated Joe Public.

There is also concern that the bureaucratic ghost of the Greater London Council could be awakened when small improvement works are considered. Are councils going to have to consult with TfL every time they want to put a drop kerb from the side of a strategic road to a property? How much will they have to consult over work on adjoining roads which directly impacts on strategic routes?

These and other questions have yet to be answered, and in the short term at least the uncertainty is likely to lead to some disruption. The boroughs still do not know, for example, if they will be allowed to keep parking charges and money from parking fines. Until now this has provided a hypothecated transport improvements fund. And the full strategic network may not be finalised until the new mayor has settled into the job in mid- 2000.

In the meantime councils with tight budgets have to decide where to spend their money. Should it go on busy routes which could be taken over by TfL in two years, or be spent on roads they are sure to retain?

Some borough engineers are already admitting that things like bridge strengthening, which are invisible to the public but cost an enormous amount of money, are likely to suffer. And the business community is privately voicing concerns about an interregnum during which essential work is left undone.

Clearly there are problems facing the boroughs in the run-up to the GLA, but the next two years could also be seen as an opportunity. There is no knowing whether the future mayor will have fixed ideas on how to solve London's transport problems, but the subject will sit high on the political agenda.

Council engineers have a golden chance to get involved with pilot schemes for reducing traffic congestion and improving the roads which could ultimately influence policy. If, as expected, the Integrated Transport White Paper makes more money available for existing roads, then a properly guided GLA will be best placed to spend it. Like so many other good ideas, it will only work if supported by all.

Matthew Jones

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