Government must ‘reconsider portfolio of expensive, complex road enhancement projects’

Cross-party MPs have called for a reconsideration of the planned enhancements to the strategic road network (SRN) as they are expensive and complex, leading to delays that cause confusion and uncertainty.

These are the findings of the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into the government’s strategic road investment strategy, published today (26 July).

During the evidence collection, the committee received over 50 submissions of written evidence from stakeholders and held three oral evidence sessions in which it heard from witnesses from the haulage and logistics industry, motoring consumer organisations and transport campaigners. It also heard from National Highways and the Department for Transport (DfT) during the sessions.

Portfolio planning and delivery

Since 2015, the DfT and National Highways have set out their investment plans for the SRN through five-year roads investment strategy (RIS) periods. These portfolios were intended to provide assurances about the SRN’s investment and upkeep to businesses in the supply chain and users of the roads.

However, as the Transport Committee has found, “throughout RIS1 and 2, there has been a consistent theme of overly ambitious portfolio planning, and National Highways has overspent and underdelivered”.

There weren’t lessons learned from RIS1 (2015 to 2020) and the portfolio for RIS2 (2020 to 2025) was “even more ambitious”. This has seen even more issues crop up and numerous schemes have been pushed into RIS3 (2025 to 2030) – and some projects initially earmarked for RIS3 have already been delayed to RIS4 (2030 to 2035).

“Rather than the efficiency and certainty which road periods were meant to introduce, this has led to confusion and uncertainty,” the committee states.

It goes on to say: “The DfT needs to ensure that future RIS portfolios which include such projects are deliverable; it is time for the government to reconsider its portfolio of expensive, complex SRN enhancement projects. There is a compelling case for each RIS portfolio to be smaller in scope to avoid continual deferral of projects from one road period to the next, or for the government to dedicate more resource to ensuring that projects can be completed within a reasonable window.”

The committee recommends the implementation of “more robust and transparent measures to assess deliverability when setting a RIS so that a wider range of stakeholders can flag risks to completing projects on time”.

Meeting user priorities

A section of the inquiry was dedicated to how the SRN meets user needs. It was found that money would be better spent “renewing older parts of the SRN and ensuring that resources are available to run the network in a way which better meets the needs of the drivers and industries that rely on it”.

The committee has therefore recommended that the RIS3 and RIS4 portfolios and beyond “should prioritise investment in the maintenance, renewal and resilience of existing assets over brand new projects”. This is something that National Highways has already outlined as a priority for RIS3, saying it will “make the most” of the existing SRN.

The committee presses home the need to ensure there is sufficient provision for maintenance in RIS3 by suggesting “funding could be gained by cancelling complex, costly enhancement projects”.

Alignment with government policy goals

The inquiry also looked into how management of the SRN feeds into the country’s economic and net zero policies.

With regard to economy, the committee states that the SRN is important for economic growth, but “the extent to which further investment in the Network would help to boost growth, in comparison to investment in other modes of transport and connectivity, is contested”. It has promised to look further into how the outcomes of transport investment are prioritised and appraised.

Regarding net zero, the committee has highlighted the fact that all of the DfT’s models for future travel scenarios see traffic on the SRN increasing but there is a risk that uptake of cleaner vehicles will not be fast enough to mitigate the emissions.

It states: “The government’s determination to accommodate demand for new roads through investment without also considering steps to manage that demand is a risky strategy.”

It has recommended that the government “model and report on scenarios where traffic levels on the SRN are a) reduced and b) maintained at current levels, alongside the transition to a cleaner vehicle fleet, in order to assess the potential contribution of demand management to reaching net zero”.

It has also questioned the SRN’s readiness for more electric vehicles. It has recommended that the government “provide a credible strategy which sets out how the SRN will meet the fuel needs of the future vehicle fleet, including for freight, and provide milestone targets for delivering infrastructure to do so”.

Engagement with sub-national transport bodies

During the oral evidence sessions for the inquiry, the Select Committee spoke to leaders of three sub-national transport bodies about the difficulties of integrating their local road building plans with National Highways’ larger schemes. This was particularly impacted by sudden delays to major schemes.

The inquiry found that there is no official role for sub-national transport bodies in the RIS setting process. Despite this, there have been some examples of collaborative planning and working between the bodies and National Highways, but this is inconsistent.

The committee recommends that sub-national transport bodies be acknowledged in National Highways’ licence, as this “would enable sub-national transport bodies to convey regional priorities more effectively, and help National Highways gain a better understanding of potential risks and mitigations for schemes proposed for the regions”.

Reporting and transparency

The committee has found that understanding and scrutinising the delivery progress of a RIS portfolio or project is not simple as it involves cross-referencing several annual documents from National Highways and the Office of Rail and Road that are not updated in the interim. The committee says “this is not accessible or transparent, especially given the significant changes that can be made to the RIS programme”.

This was underlined when the roads minister Richard Holden was not able to provide an up-to-date progress report on the RIS2 portfolio.

The committee recommends that the government and National Highways work together “to introduce a “live” project dashboard which provides up-to-date information on each project in the RIS1, RIS2 and subsequent RIS portfolios”.

It adds: “The dashboard should provide information on original and current: costs; Start of Work date; Open for Traffic date; and planning status (if applicable).”

National Highways chief executive Nick Harris said: “We welcome the report from the Transport Committee and will consider in detail its findings.

“We’re investing in safer, smoother and more reliable journeys for the four million vehicles that rely on England's motorways and major A-roads every day, adding capacity by opening nine schemes this year alone.

“Our roads have a critical role to play in supporting economic growth and levelling up. We are thinking ever more about our legacy and how we can protect the planet, contribute to local communities and meet our net zero goals.”

Transport Action Network (TAN) was one of the campaign groups to give evidence to the inquiry. Reacting to the report, TAN chief executive Chris Todd said: “This is yet another damning report for the bungling duo that is the Department for Transport and National Highways. Their continued arrogance and obsession with road building has led to another fine mess of overspending, while underdelivering. Rather than more slapstick comedy, decisive action to cut carbon and congestion is long overdue. The MPs’ clear message that ministers need to consider measures to cut traffic must not go unheard.

“The Committee’s call to consider ‘cancelling complex, costly enhancement projects’ to free up funding for filling potholes will be welcomed by the public, however they travel. This must include local authority roads, which are in a terrible condition.

“In a week that has seen roads in northern England under water, while those in the Med are on fire, it’s time to recognise the need for more funding to protect existing transport networks from runaway climate change. The moment has come to bring National Highway’s plans for a future of ever bigger roads down to earth.”

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