The government’s plan for the UK’s road network
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Speech given at the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum event.
Thank-you for that introduction Jim [Fitzpatrick – Chair for the conference]. I listened with deep interest to Christopher’s [Christopher Chope MP’s] remarks last night [in the House]. And recognising the quality of the audience here today (11 July 2013), it is a great pleasure to be here today (11 July 2013).
This forum has long played an influential role in shaping the transport debate, by bringing together policymakers, transport professionals, academics and many other experts in the field,
In particular, it provides a valuable platform for discussing some of the more radical and visionary ideas for improving transport in the UK.
That’s certainly true with today’s (11 July 2013) conference.
For far too long, I think we need to accept, roads policy and investment have been neglected.
And successive governments have failed to find an enduring and politically credible answer to the problems that affect our road network.
Importance of roads
And that failure has affected us all.
Not just motorists and hauliers, fleets and bus operators.
It has affected local communities, local environments.
It has lowered the profits of almost every business, and may at times have lowered the GDP of our country.
Time lost as a result of congestion on our main roads costs our economy £2 billion a year.
And that figure is projected to rise five times by 2040 if we fail to address the problem.
Roads are a cornerstone of our economy; providing critical links for cities and towns, connecting people with jobs and businesses with markets.
Cars remain and are likely to remain our most popular form of transport.
So in an increasingly competitive age, for Britain to grow and prosper, it is vital that our road infrastructure meets those demands and world-class standards.
Yet we’ve underinvested in roads for decades.
The World Economic Forum ranks the UK 24th in the world for the quality of its road network at the moment.
By contrast, France and Germany are in the top ten.
It is a simple fact that since 1990, France has built 2,700 miles of new motorway – more than the entire UK motorway network. We have built just 46, between 2001 and 2009.
And between 1990 and 2001, annual spending on trunk road schemes in England fell by more than 80% in real terms.
The continual stop go has had a huge impact. This is something that we, as a government, are working hard to address.
Because we know that if we don’t act now to improve our roads, the repercussions will be felt for generations to come.
What we’ve done
That’s why, since coming to office in 2010, we have completed 8 major road schemes.
It’s why we’ve brought forward 26 new major schemes which are starting work this Parliament……
…..eight already in construction, and a further nine will start within the next year.
It’s why we’ve invested £300 million in 123 pinch-point projects on the national network.
And it’s why we’re funding over 70 local pinch-point schemes to help remove local bottlenecks. To enhance local opportunities, including housing opportunities.
This is a success given the temptation for a government during these economic times to reduce capital expenditure.
The case for reform
But the challenges we face are much greater and more persistent than any government can fix in one Parliament.
Over the past decade, traffic on strategic roads has grown seven times faster than the rest of the network.
And we expect that trend to continue.
But this is not just about investment.
It’s also about changing the way our roads are managed.
Previous governments have been mired in a ‘patch and mend’ mentality.
Instead of planning a strategy for the whole network, their response to rising traffic levels has been to use piecemeal improvements on the most congested routes.
No wonder the standard of roads is so inconsistent.
While other forms of transport get the security of long-term contracts, roads investment tends to be stop-start.
So when wider savings are needed, it has been easier to cut roads spending than other parts of the budget.
This might save money in the short term.
This approach has all too often just piled up problems for later.
If we are to truly overcome the challenges we are facing….
And if we want a national road network fit for the twenty-first century….
Then we must break free from this mindset and adopt a genuinely new approach.
It is the challenge of future economic growth. The challenge of technology. The challenge of the environment.
What is needed is long-term planning backed by sustained investment.
So that’s precisely what we’re doing.
In the recent Spending Round, the Chancellor announced plans for the largest programme of investment in our roads since the 1970s.
We are trebling our spending on major road schemes by the end of the decade.
And we are resurfacing 80% of the national road network.
This means adding 221 lane miles of extra capacity to our busiest motorways, and starting 52 major road projects by 2021.
We are tackling some of the most notorious and longstanding traffic hot spots in the country.
All problems that previous governments have said were too big to fix….
But in fact problems that are too big and too damaging to ignore.
But I think the key point is the announcement at the spending round on the challenge for the future and why the commercialisation of the Highways Agency will put the Agency on a stable footing.
Local road maintenance
Another critical area for improvement is local roads.
We have provided more than £3 billion to local councils in England to maintain their highways.
And last year alone, over 850 major projects were carried out as part of an £800 million-per-year programme of road maintenance.
We want to make sure that local authorities are using their road maintenance budgets properly……
Tackling potholes and other problems, while getting best value for the taxpayer.
As with strategic roads, councils must develop a whole-life approach to maintaining local networks, which will help prevent costly problems from developing in the first place.
This is something I’ll be working on with my Ministerial colleague Norman Baker in the next few months.
Safety and environment
But the measures announced in the Spending Review will also deliver wider benefits…..
In particular, to make our roads safer and greener.
Britain is fortunate to have one of the safest road networks in the world.
Over the past 15 years, fatality and serious injury numbers have fallen by half.
But you can never be complacent.
I am delighted to say that our campaigns like the “fifty thousand pound beer” campaign and the award winning Think! campaign continue to raise awareness of safety issues, and play a considerable role in reducing injuries and fatalities on the roads. The Think! Cyclist campaign encouraged cyclists to think about how they could cycle more safely, and drivers to think about how they could drive more carefully.
However it is also about tackling the junctions that are the most difficult.
As we upgrade the network, the new investment will help us take advantage of safer highway designs, further reducing the number of preventable accidents on strategic roads.
We have also come a long way in reducing the environmental impact of roads, changing from the times when roads were viewed as an environmental disaster.
We are working in partnership with stakeholders such as Natural England and the RSPB.
We will build on these partnerships and achievements by investing in scheme designs which are sensitive to local environments….
And which ensure that road improvements seek to protect natural landscapes and habitats, rather than damage them.
Cutting edge techniques in areas like tunnelling and quiet surfaces will help us reduce and resolve long-standing environmental problems.
The Hindhead tunnel scheme, for example, has shown how an area of natural beauty once blighted by traffic can be returned to its former glory.
This new investment is also a once in a generation opportunity to prepare our network for increasing numbers of ultra-low emission vehicles and cyclists. That work continues. It is the challenge of technology.
New thinking for future
All these measures – backed by sustained funding – will transform our national roads, and have major benefits for our economy.
They will allow us to address the backlog of repairs, reduce congestion, boost performance and help secure long-term growth.
How we deliver the programme is just as important.
It is vital that our roads are managed and run well, so that the money we do spend provides the best results.
That means we need to look at the structure of roads delivery.
I mentioned a moment ago the institutional announcement alongside the spending announcement at the spending review.
There has been some criticism of the institutional relationship between the Highways Agency and central government – with accusations that it is less efficient than it could be.
Infrastructure companies and supply chains have complained about stop-go funding, and a lack of transparency about future investment plans.
Unlike any other infrastructure network operator, the Highways Agency is limited by Civil Service rules and regulations.
It lacks independence from central government – unlike Network Rail, for example.
The way it is funded on an annual basis has meant it has been subject to stop go funding.
So the government is responding to this challenge, by making radical changes to the way the roads are run.
In the Spending Review we announced our plans to transform the Highways Agency into a corporation, giving it the flexibility and the vision it needs to be a world class highways operator.
These changes will allow it to manage the network with greater commercial freedom - focusing on day to day operations, and prioritising economic value over political factors.
Giving it long-term funding certainty and greater flexibility should help speed up delivery, and reduce costs for investment, renewals, maintenance and operations.
That alone would save £600 million by 2020/21.
Funding certainty is crucial for industry.
It will help construction businesses to prepare for the future, plan with confidence, and boost efficiency through longer contracts and labour retention.
We will be publishing further details of our roads reform proposals in the very near future.
So to sum up.
The government is taking up the challenge of doing the damage done by decades of failed transport policy.
It is a big job. Particularly when you are going through turbulent economic times.
But we are building a foundation for long-term transport change in this country.
A change in investment, for sure.
But also a change in the way we plan and deliver transport.
And in how we tackle the environmental impacts of schemes.
It is now right that we challenge ourselves about how to deliver on roads investment.
We’ve shown with rail that we can do it.
Now the time has come to look at roads in a new way.
We are under no illusions that delivering this programme will be challenging, and government cannot do it alone.
We will need the help of the industry – and the many experts here today.
But I’m confident that together we can modernise and regenerate the network…
And deliver the economy and the quality of life that this country deserves.