Turning to the future

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Road infrastructure strategy: building the skill for delivery.


Turning to the future


Thank you for inviting me to speak.

I take it as a given that any Roads Minister in this country should be – as I am – a disciple of the Roman politician Gaius Gracchus.

Gracchus was an instinctive populist.

He made his career by allying himself with the people of Rome.

And against the established power of the Roman Senate.

Like so many of his countrymen, Gracchus knew his political legacy could be secured through public works.

His great and lasting gift to the people was the Roman road network.

The Greek biographer Plutarch wrote that Gracchus:

Busied himself most earnestly with the construction of roads, laying stress upon utility, as well as upon that which conduced to grace and beauty.

Gracchus’ road-building programme garnered massive popular support.

So much so that the Senate began to fear that he would subvert its power.

In 121 BC the Senate incited a savage mob to hunt him down.

Chased to a garden on the banks of the Tiber known as the Sacred Grove of the Furies.

He suffered a grisly end, described by Plutarch in fine detail and with thinly concealed delight.

Gaius Gracchus has taught me to accept that managing the roads exposes one to an inevitable share of tribulation and strife.

But I also take confidence from his conviction that good roads matter to a country and its people.

Our roads are the arteries of trade.

They bear us to our friends and family and safely home again.

It’s a testament to their social value that they are invested in, generation after generation.

Repaved and widened according to need.

Diverted through new tunnels and over new bridges.

We benefit from his legacy every time we use the A2, the A5, the A10, the A38.

And countless other roads left us by the Romans and built according to Gracchus’ principles.

Delivering the roads of the future

Yet today we are at a turning point in the history of road building.

Until recently, our road building techniques would be at least recognisable by Gracchus.

But the craft is about to be transformed by the digital revolution.

Our roads, bridges and tunnels are joining the Internet of Things.

Wireless connection between vehicles and their environment is already allowing communication about hazards, weather and traffic flow.

The A14 is Britain’s first internet-connected road.

A string of sensors monitor traffic by communicating with mobile phones in moving vehicles.

Sending the information to a traffic control system which automatically smooths the flow of traffic.

In the future, road surfaces will supply electric cars with inductive charging.

In cold weather, heating elements will prevent roads from freezing.

The use of self-healing materials and nanotechnology will help keep roads in good condition.

Road structures will automatically alert engineers to developing faults.

And robots will be deployed to inspect bridges and carry out maintenance.

It’s already happened in virtually every other industrial sector.

Consider the cars we use to travel our roads.

The Jaguar XJ is supported by more than 100 million lines of electrical code.

Twice as many as the Large Hadron Collider.

And reportedly 7 times as many as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

Now the roads themselves are about to be digitalised.

This historical turning point is the context for my speech tonight.

First, I will explain our plans to make an unprecedented investment in our nation’s roads.

Second, I will argue that attention must now turn to the delivery of those plans.

Third, I will explain how we will ensure successful delivery by cultivating the right skills, including digital skills.

Strategic road network

So, first: the investment we are making in our nation’s roads and why that investment is needed.

As Roads Minister, I am responsible for the busiest roads in England.

The strategic road network; 4,300 miles of motorways and A-roads carrying over 4 million vehicles a day.

This network constitutes the single most valuable asset owned by the government.

It was mostly developed between the 1930s and the 1960s in a spirit of futuristic optimism.

But successive governments failed to maintain investment to a level that kept pace with the increasing demand placed on the network.

Today, our roads are becoming choked with congestion.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.

Has ranked Britain’s road network 28th in the world – behind France, Germany, Austria, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Canada and the United States.

UK spending on roads fell in the nineties and beyond, while our competitors continued to invest.

Between 2000 and 2009, the Netherlands opened 225 miles of new motorway.

Germany opened 680 miles.

And France 850.

In that time, only 46 miles of new motorway were opened in the UK.

It hasn’t helped that funding has been unpredictable, and inconsistent.

Schemes were announced hastily and were dropped just as quickly.

It’s hardly a model that encourages long-term planning by the highways infrastructure supply chain.

Or that gives the taxpayer good value for money.

So now our old roads need upgrading, and we need new roads to support the country through the 21st century.

But it’s because, so often, roads become permanent, defining features of our national life and landscape.

That we’ve proceeded with great care.

Where previous road investment has been piecemeal, inconsistent, reactive, inadequate.

We’ve decided to plan for the long-term.

Taking account of the social and economic changes we are likely to experience in the next decades.

Providing a level of funding appropriate to the importance of the task.

And basing our plans on solid empirical evidence.

So we’ve researched how drivers use our roads.

How far they drive, and how often.

And taking this research into account.

Along with the effect of future changes in income, the cost of driving, and demographic shifts.

Our findings are clear.

If drivers think they’ve got a bad deal today.

If we don’t act, it’s only going to get worse.

If we carry on as we are, by 2040 congestion will have reached such a level that a quarter of all travel time will be spent sitting motionless in traffic.

That’s a loss to our economy equivalent to 100 million working days every year.

Road investment strategy

So in December, I announced this government’s ‘Road investment strategy

A £15 billion plan to increase the capacity and condition of England’s roads.

Tripling spending on road improvements to over £3 billion per year by 2021.

Including a £4.5 billion commitment to add an extra lane to the motorways between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Yorkshire.

A new tunnel under Stonehenge.

Work to unclog the A27 in the south.

And to transform the A1 links in the north.

In total, 84 wholly new roads or enhancement of existing roads.

69 of which will enter construction before 2019, delivering 1,300 additional lane miles.

80% of the strategic road network will be resurfaced, significantly reducing noise pollution.

The strategy sets out where road investment will be delivered over the next 25 years.

Supporting an average of 11,000 construction jobs a year.

But this is not just a one-off cash injection.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 provides the strategy with a stable legislative foundation.

Holding this and future governments to the same standard of long-term thinking.

The Infrastructure Act means that the road strategy can be varied or replaced.

But that there should be such a strategy is now upheld in law.

It’s a profound change which requires re-thinking how future road investment is managed.


And that’s my second point this evening.

Our responsibility now is to secure the delivery of the ‘Road investment strategy’.

And that’s a challenge shared both by the government and the infrastructure supply chain.

Because, as Gaius Gracchus recognised, to build and maintain our roads takes skill.

Surveying, engineering and construction skill.

Skill that must be preserved and cultivated.

In the right places.

And in the right quantity.

This is a case that needs to be made.

Because although this government has provided a long-term, empirically-grounded ‘Road investment strategy’.

Backed by a stable legislative framework.

And unprecedented financial capital.

All that provision is at risk if we fail to invest now in the necessary human capital.

The skilled surveyors, engineers and construction workers.

Who will carry our plans to fruition.

I will talk first about the challenge this presents to the infrastructure supply chain.

The thousands of firms across the country who will supply the materials, the machinery and the manpower to build the roads of the 21st century.

The ‘Road investment strategy’ is the greatest change the supply chain has faced for perhaps 50 years.

If the heyday of the road building industry was the years between the 1930s and 1960s, then most of the 30,000 people working in the industry today.

Will have developed their careers in the relatively lean years since the 1970s.

The road building industry of today will hold almost no corporate memory.

Of the skills required to carry out a far-reaching, decades-long, road investment programme of this kind.

So now is the time for the infrastructure supply chain to start assembling the resources.

To invest in new techniques and equipment.

And to recruit and train staff with the ambition to get the job done.

That’s no small challenge.

Because although we’ve provided the planning, the money and the certainty.

Our engineers, surveyors and construction workers are in growing demand from all our other great infrastructure projects.

Crossrail, HS2, HS3, our new power stations, the northern line extension, flood defences.

It’s a list that proves this has been the infrastructure government.

All these great projects are drawing from the same population of skilled labour.

But I am confident that in the competition for skilled, ambitious infrastructure recruits.

The road building industry will hold its own against the rail, aviation and energy sectors.

The road building skills of the future

Because the next generation of road builders will also be telecommunications experts.

IT professionals.

Even nanotechnologists and roboticists.

That’s a thrilling prospect for anyone considering a career in infrastructure.

And it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for the roads supply chain.

Re-training current staff and bringing in new experts will take far-sightedness, ingenuity and innovation.

It will mean encouraging a more diverse intake.

And it will require investment in training.

Government commitments

But the government is not going to leave the industry unsupported.

Today I will set out our 4-point plan to support the infrastructure supply chain to radically increase the nation’s stock of road building skills.

First, we are overhauling how the strategic roads network is governed and managed.

On 1 April, we are replacing the Highways Agency with a new body called Highways England.

A government-owned company that will be firmly accountable to ministers and to parliament.

Passenger Focus will be renamed Transport Focus and given a new role as the road users’ watch-dog.

And the Office of Rail Regulation will become the Office of Rail and Road, in order to act as a roads monitor.

The creation of Highways England will bring an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to the operation of England’s motorways and A-roads.

As well as saving the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years.

The effect of this change will be to give our country confidence in the way our roads our managed.

And give confidence to the companies who help plan, build and maintain those roads.

Second, we will promote a skills culture change within the roads supply chain.

Today the workforce is 30,000 strong.

But if we are tripling spending on roads.

Building 1,300 brand new lane miles.

And resurfacing 80% of the existing network.

Our estimate is that, even with new working practices and more efficient delivery, the workforce will need to grow significantly - this could be up to a third.

So where Highways England identifies that specific skills are needed.

Those skills will be mandated in contracts with suppliers.

But contracts won’t just consider the job in hand.

They will take account of future need.

So when suppliers bid for work, they will need to commit to providing apprenticeships.

And to implementing skills-plans to equip their workforce for the long-term.

Of course, these contractual requirements will be reflected in the price that Highways England will pay.

But it’s far cheaper to invest in rearing home-grown, British expertise now.

Than wait and outsource work to expensive international consultants later.

Third, the recruitment and training of the roads workforce will be devolved to the regions.

So that our roads are built and maintained by the local population who will use them most.

Different roads in different localities will require different skills.

Whether in bridge building, resurfacing, tunnelling or digitalisation.

So we have opened discussions with the Association of Colleges

About establishing regional roads academies across England.

The Association of Colleges will help us identify areas of teaching excellence.

In the places we are facing skills shortages.

So one of Highways England’s early priorities after it is created on 1 April.

Will be to draw up a blueprint for founding roads academies in the best regional locations.

Our new roads academies will train the thousands of apprentices.

The skilled technical professionals.

And the senior management needed to support the road infrastructure strategy in the years ahead.

It’s an educational project that will make England the infrastructure workshop of the world once more.

And finally, I want to ensure that responsibility for delivering infrastructure rests securely with ministers.

Named individuals, empowered with ministerial portfolios, wielding all the resources of the state to get things done.

Recently some have argued that infrastructure is best taken out of the hands of politicians.

They say infrastructure is too important to be left at the mercy of democracy.

They want the responsibility for taking decisions about infrastructure handed over to an independent commission, a quango or an arm’s-length body.

But I say, infrastructure is too important to be taken away from ministers.

When we take decisions about infrastructure, we decide to spend public money.

Decide to change the national landscape.

Decide to reshape our country.

Decision-makers should know they are directly accountable to the public.

They should feel the breath of the electorate on their necks.

Of course there is a place for using independent commissions and independent agencies.

But transferring accountability from elected politicians should not be the default preference.

This government has proven that elected politicians are capable of taking long-term decisions about infrastructure.

The roads investment plan is the perfect example.

But I could equally cite the decision in favour of a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, which could provide us with energy for the next century.

Or the decision to press ahead with HS2.

We’ve already taken steps to strengthen accountability for infrastructure by placing Infrastructure UK at the heart of the Treasury.

And by passing the Infrastructure Act.

But I want to go further, and convene a ministerial infrastructure taskforce.

With membership drawn from across all the government departments with an interest in infrastructure.

In the past, the fact that infrastructure and the matter of the skills required to build it falls across a range of ministerial portfolios.

Has had a tendency to dilute ministerial accountability.

But by drawing ministers together in an infrastructure taskforce.

I want to concentrate accountability with a handful of empowered individuals.

And while in the past, governments have been able to make infrastructure announcements but then skimp on delivery.

I want to ensure that if the timetable slips, if costs go up, if the reality of the finished product doesn’t match the ambition of the original commitment.

We know precisely where to look for an explanation.

It’s a taskforce we will set up and populate as soon as the post-election dust has settled.


The elevation of the practical has long been my mission and one shared by this government.

Confronting the deficit and getting our economy growing was the supreme practical objective of this parliament.

And it’s one I’m proud to say we have met.

I am proud that during my time as Minister for Skills I presided over the greatest growth in apprenticeships our nation has ever seen.

We are delivering an unprecedented 2 million apprenticeships in this parliament.

And we are committed to helping more young people through an additional million apprenticeships in the next parliament.

That’s because we see these different issues as fundamentally linked.

Without skilled people, we can’t improve our roads.

And without a modern, fit for purpose road network, we can’t deliver the long-term economic growth that Britain needs. That’s why we are determined to prepare for a high skilled, high tech future.

And I am confident that because of the long-term certainty we have provided.

The unprecedented funding.

The stable legislative framework.

And the thrilling prospect of transforming our roads into information-superhighways.

We will see a new era of British engineering excellence.

Fit to build roads that will last as long as the roads of Gaius Gracchus.

Thank you.