Sweeping changes to the way England’s major roads are managed have moved a step closer today after Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin approved wide-ranging reforms to the Highways Agency.
In less than twelve months the Highways Agency will be transformed into a Government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and strategic A-road network.
The Government has committed more than £24 billion to upgrade England’s strategic road network between 2010 and 2021 – part of a £56 billion investment in the country’s transport infrastructure designed to help get the economy moving.
The Department for Transport (DfT) claims that changes to the Highways Agency will save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next ten years and will make the new company more accountable to Parliament and road users.
Supported by stable, locked-in funding that will eliminate the uncertain ‘stop-start’ processes of the past, the new company and its suppliers will have the confidence to recruit skilled workers on longer-term contracts that will save the taxpayer money, it says.
The Government is also setting up two new bodies to hold the company to account - one to protect the interests of motorists and other road users, and another to oversee the roads network and watch over costs and performance.
These will be created with two expert transport bodies - Passenger Focus and the Office of Rail Regulation – and will provide transparent reports on roads issues.
The Transport Secretary approved the reform following a consultation on the Government’s proposals, the results of which were published yesterday alongside the Government’s response.
The DfT says it will now work to introduce the legislation needed to underpin these changes and plans to bring the new company into operation in April 2015.
McLoughlin said: “Our road network is an incredibly important national asset, but it has been neglected. This Government has committed to the biggest ever investment in our roads but it is vital we have the right foundations in place to make sure this huge amount of money is spent in the most efficient way.
“The reformed Highways Agency will be more transparent and more accountable, driving down costs as it increases efficiency. This means taxpayers get a better deal and road users get a network that is fit for the future economic demands of this country, helping to create more jobs and support business growth.”
Alasdair Reisner, chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contactors Association, said: "In the past, the roads sector has suffered from boom-and-bust conditions that are hugely damaging to the smooth delivery of projects. These reforms will not only make the Highways Agency more efficient, but will also mean greater funding certainty for the construction sector.
“Long-term stability and certainty of investment will give our members and the Highways Agency good visibility in planning their work, whilst providing the supply chain with greater confidence in developing its workforce to meet future demands."
To help support the Government’s economic ambitions for the road network the DfT will publish a long-term ‘Roads Investment Strategy’ later this year. This strategy will set out a clear vision for the new company that will include a new plan for investment and performance requirements.
Last week, the DfT also published the scope documents for six feasibility studies that aim to identify solutions to some of the most notorious and long-standing hotspots on the strategic road network. These include the A303/A30/A358 corridor to the South West; the A1 North of Newcastle; the A1 Newcastle-Gateshead Western Bypass; trans-Pennine routes between Manchester and Sheffield; the A27 corridor on the South coast and the A47 corridor between Norfolk and the Midlands. The studies aim to report with proposed solutions this autumn.
Alongside the feasibility studies, the Highways Agency has also published new evidence reports for routes on the strategic road network - the first stage towards developing solutions to the future demands on England’s roads.
In the coming months, the DfT will set out detailed plans for the Board of the new strategic highways company and appointments, sanctions that might apply to the new company, decisions on planning powers and the company’s role in the planning process.