A FAIR DEAL FOR THE MOTORIST
A NETWORK THAT IS
THE ENVY OF THE WORLD?
How generous might the government’s
massive shake up of England’s roads really be?
This command paper promises that a trebling of funding for motorways and major A-roads by the end of the decade will lead to the biggest ever upgrade of the existing network. The devil is in the detail.
The DFT PR promises “a guarantee of a large increase in funding, locked into a long term settlement, backed by law”, but how guaranteed is this?
THINK OF A NUMBER...
Talk of “£28 billion of investment” may sound a lot, but it’s only a percentage of the £50Bn or so taken in driver taxes each year. Similarly, is spending “between £30 to 50 billion over a 10-15 year period”. i.e. on average between £2Bn-£5Bn a year on the SRN that dramatic?
Described as “the biggest sustained commitment to road improvements in decades”, it will “decisively make up for the underinvestment of the past twenty years. When this is complete, we will have a network that is the envy of the world.”
The third world perhaps? The DFT claims that the spending on road enhancements will have tripled from today’s levels by the end of the decade. Although a commitment to resurface 80% of the network by 2021 is probably a plus, it might be over-optimistic on clearing potholes. The £6Bn plus the £3.2Bn previously announced, will not clear the backlog of potholes. The industry estimate for this was previously £10Bn, and that figure excludes the costs that will increase exponentially through letting roads deteriorate.
It is ironic that the DFT notes that “Savings on maintenance work are often a false economy”.
The same might be said elsewhere, especially when the government seems intent to push on with the HS2 white elephant, whose costs are now reckoned at nearer £50Bn-£80Bn.
MANAGED MOTORWAYS AND EXPRESSWAYS
Adding a further 221 miles of extra capacity to our busiest motorways may sound great before you twig it’s ‘managed motorways’ on the cheap and the hard shoulder being lost.
The DFT regards managed motorways as a great success and its definition of them includes a state of the art communication system. Has it asked drivers who are unnecessarily slowed down to 60mph or even 50mph on the excuse of congestion that isn’t there? This is what happened just after Christmas on a quarter-full section of the M1.
In practice, the Highways Agency (HA) is notorious for out of date and otherwise inaccurate signage – with the dominant message being to slow down!
Managed motorway schemes will become standard on some of our busiest national routes, including a 160 mile corridor along the M1 and M6 from London to the North West.
The DFT plans to treat our most important A roads as ‘expressways’ – with the SRN seeing “high standards of safety and performance in the way we expect of our motorways”.
There should be similar caution over this, as safety policy has too often been relegated to a fetish for reducing speed.
The DFT plans to upgrade the majority of the non-motorway roads on the strategic road network, with a large proportion improved to dual-carriageway with grade-separated junctions (where vehicles on the main road are able to drive over or under the junctions), to ensure freer-flowing traffic nationwide.
It will address even well-developed roads with sections originally built for vehicles driving at a much slower pace than modern traffic, leaving a bottleneck.
A local pinch-point fund is available until 2015, enabling local improvements and upgrades at congestion hotspots. This may not be universally good news, as many schemes are aimed at supporting buses, cycling and walking.
There is the predictable mention of minimising the environmental impact of roads. Whereas there may not be many objections to making road surfaces quieter or minimising the disturbance of works to wildlife, the DFT also commits to “an aggressive policy of decarbonisation”.
What exactly this means is not spelt out. However, on top of the programmed £400 million towards the uptake of low carbon vehicles, the DFT will spend over £500 million more by the end of the decade.
The DFT moans that the contribution of road traffic to climate change from carbon dioxide emissions remains a major challenge, and reminds us that it supports emission reductions, backed with a series of legally binding carbon budgets.
It is ominous that it is discussing with the European Commission how to best work towards goals for the environmental performance of transport, although a recent rebellion in the European Parliament over wider emissions reductions might make EU legislation more difficult to pass.
The DFT faces both ways at once when it says it wants to bring about the decarbonisation of travel in a way that is cost-effective, acceptable to users and makes the most of the economic opportunities for the UK.
Consequently It tries to make out that support for Ultra Low Emission Vehicles in the UK is key to securing affordable motoring for the long-term. Don’t tell the Treasury, which has its eyes set on extorting even more tax out of drivers!
The DFT adds that it is strengthening the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to shape transport policy. LEPs are a scaled down successor to the old English Regional Development Agencies, and often cover one or two county areas. The representation is roughly half local councils, half local business, although representing local feeling is not guaranteed.
Some LEPs (e.g. New Anglia, covering Suffolk and Norfolk) know funds are scarce so have looked straightaway at approaching the EU for funding (which will in reality is just recycled taxpayers money, but given or loaned back with an added dependency to support EU objectives, which may be virulently anti-motorist). It is ironic that the report hints on removing strings attached to funding.
TOLLING BY STEALTH?
The DFT vows to continue with developing route based strategies (RBS) for the whole network, to build a next generation of ‘improvements and interventions’ for local routes. This will bring together interested groups – local authorities, LEPs, motorists’ organisations, environmental groups and others – to discuss the future of a section of SRN.
So far the first document towards a ‘RBS’ for the A47 in Norfolk has not mentioned road pricing, but it is early days.
The 2011 ‘Cook report’ pushed ‘consideration’ of tolling, both for new connections and existing major roads that are currently free. It also suggested ‘developing route-based strategies’, co-ordinating ‘equivalent plans’ for the SRN and local roads.
At a time when many local authorities are short of cash, there is the danger of creating a local monopoly or cartel to ensure that free roads do not compete with toll roads. It is interesting to note that after the Cook report which urges ‘asset-sweating’, the DFT believes that the local highway network is the country’s most valuable public asset, valued at over £400Bn.
It is also interesting to note that there have since been attempts to move discussion away from tolling just new roads and onto roads that have been ‘improved’.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS GAME
The DFT warns that as we return to economic growth, rising prosperity, substantial population increases and a fall in the cost of car travel from fuel efficiency improvements, traffic and congestion are expected to grow.
Even with the worst economic circumstances and low population growth, traffic levels on strategic roads are modelled to be 24% higher in 2040 than they are today. It feels a 46% rise is more likely, and that around 15% of the SRN may experience regular peak-time congestion and suffer poor conditions at other times of the day. Major national arteries will start to jam.
This is difficult to prove so far ahead. Quite a few commentators (such as Christian Wolmar, Professors Nash and Metz) have noted that travel demand is tailing off. Even DFT admits that since 2007, road traffic in England has declined by 4%, and since 2010 overall traffic has been largely static.
The DFT’s predictions have been out in the past, and there is a growing public backlash over uncontrolled population growth.
BRAVE NEW WORLD?
The DFT committed to release a Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) by 2015. It would take a view of 20-30 years and reflect a wider, integrated approach to all modes of transport. It would be strongly influenced by the local RBS.
One potential benefit will be to drive down costs for the HA, and provide a stable footing for (e.g.) construction and maintenance companies to invest in skills. This could provide better value for money for the taxpayer.
One danger is that all RIS initiatives must conform to tight environmental standards. CfBT anti-car activist and green road pricing advocate Stephen Joseph has lobbied the DFT for greater involvement of environmental groups in developing the RBS.
The government intended to publish and consult on a policy statement for national roads in 2013. It then intended to introduce legislation in 2014, providing a stable funding basis for investment and legal powers for a reshaped HA.
HA TODAY, GONE TOMORROW?
In the short term, the HA would become a state-owned company with greater operational independence. This is said to work round restrictive civil service rules and offer greater staff incentives.
The DFT will continue to look at further changes - without declaring intentions, the document compares three possible types of operation such as a trust, a regulated utility and large scale outsourcing.
The DFT holds that any change needs to be one that motorists can trust, claiming that experience from other sectors and countries might benefit road users. It even adds that new models could give motorists more of a say over how roads are run - without saying how.
However, Cook’s original report made strides towards a hive-off of our roads and most of the HA’s work, and last year the government backed most of his recommendations. There are bound to be suspicions that all the investment is ‘fattening the calf for market’.
CHAMPIONING BRITAIN’S DRIVERS?
The DFT hints at a new public body to oversee the reformed HA, and one which could act as ‘motorists’ champion’. It could have several roles, such as:
The longer the list, the greater the chance of a ‘quango’ rather than a small independent body, and the more likely its bias towards satisfying government rather than drivers?
The DFT quietly released its first SRN ‘performance specification’ for 2013-15 in April 2013. Using a lot of governmentspeak this holds that the HA should maintain its current level of ‘customer satisfaction’ reported through its obscure national road users’ satisfaction survey.
It suggests that the HA gradually identifies new ‘customer feedback channels’ and ‘areas of performance improvement’
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Nationally we have got to be where the action is. There are key consultations looming, such as on national roads policy, the future roles of the HA and its overseeing body.
In particular, we should stop the role of ‘motorists’ champion’ from falling to the DFT Motorists’ Forum, which has been stuffed with anti-motorist and other vested interests.
At local level, we need to work with any allies and use the local media to ensure that RBS are not dictated by hostile interests.