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Professors voice concern on the future of road investment

2023 seems set to be a critical point in aligning transport spending priorities with broader national objectives on economic, environmental and social policies. An in-depth look at how to approach the necessary alignment has just been published by a panel of transport professors. LTT invited the panel’s convenor Glenn Lyons to outline their thinking and each individual contributor to say what they feel is most significant?

26 January 2023

 

Sometimes the ‘what?’, ‘who?’, ‘when?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ all seem to fall into place for an initiative. It feels that this has been the case for the Road Investment Scrutiny Panel that published its report this month, highlighting and examining key concerns over the future of road investment and spending.

With a grant award from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund to the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Steve Gooding and I set out to assemble a group of senior professionals to take a critical look ahead.

We called it the Road Investment Scrutiny Panel (RIS P to investigate RIS 3 you might say – though we have not only been concerned with strategic roads). The Panel comprises eight professors, including myself and Steve Gooding, plus Jillian Anable (University of Leeds); Nicola Christie (University College London); Stephen Glaister (Imperial College London); Zoe Davies (University of Kent); Phil Goodwin (UWE Bristol); and Karen Lucas (University of Manchester). The Panel Secretary was Andrew Crudgington (freelance researcher, technical writer and facilitator).

Between us we bring together expertise in road safety, transport economics, travel behaviour, biodiversity, climate change, social inequality, forecasting and uncertainty, future mobility, strategic planning, policymaking and policy advice, and scrutiny of investment.

Over a three-month period our goal was to illuminate matters that gave us all cause for concern and where we felt something could and should be done to address that concern. We started by listening to the individual voices of the Panel with each Panel member identifying their causes for concern about future road investment and spending. These concerns were then distilled and formed into a set of seven key questions.

Face-to-face group discussions subsequently allowed those questions to be refined as well as considering what we would like to see to alleviate our concerns. Thoughtful and robust iterations of refinement took place within the Panel as the creation of our report proceeded. The report was then finalised and published on 17 January 2023.

Why did it matter to us that this initiative should be pursued, and pursued now?

We recognised the coming together of a series of critical considerations: ongoing development of the third Road Investment Strategy in England (RIS 3); a review of the National Networks National Policy Statement; an economy and transport system shocked by the Covid-19 pandemic and considerable financial pressures facing national and local governments; the twin and related perils of the climate emergency and nature emergency globally; the High Court ruling last year that the Government’s Net Zero Strategy is unlawful; and the Climate Change Committee view that the Government lacks specific ambition to limit traffic growth.

The seven important and linked questions we set out in our report as matters that should be guiding strategic decision making are shown in the panel below.

We hope these questions speak for themselves. They are not matters only for investment in the strategic road network, but for road investment in the round.

I could have used the rest of the column inches available here to elaborate on the content of our report and how we have explored each of these questions. But there is an executive summary for that which you can access through the link provided.

Xavier Brice, Chief Executive of Sustrans, commented in his post on the day of our report’s release: “The Exec summary is concise and powerful. Required reading for anyone involved in transport policy, roads or decarbonisation”. We hope you’ll take a look. In the report we speak with one voice, yet our individual voices on the matters concerned are strong and heartfelt. Please do not underestimate, therefore, the significance of our unified position when considering the report’s content and messages.

Better then to make use of the remaining column inches to hear the individual voices of those who have been involved. This set of contributions resonates strongly with the content of the report – a report we hope will be received in the constructively challenging spirit intended. As I said when writing to the Secretary of State for Transport with advance news of the report, the members of the Panel stand ready to help.

The seven questions the panel poses

The seven questions we set out in our report are as follows:

1. What would make us feel confident that decisions on future road investment, at both the scheme and aggregate level, are consistent with the legal obligation to deliver a credible pathway to the decarbonisation of the UK economy by 2050?

2. What would make us feel confident that the policy imperative and opportunities to promote biodiversity enhancement are being recognised and pursued on their own merits, as opposed to biodiversity being ‘accommodated’ in pursuit of other goals?

3. How can we be persuaded that the health and social impacts of road spending experienced by individual people and communities are well understood and given sufficient weight at all stages of decision-making?

4. What would give us confidence that appropriate financial provision is being made for operating, maintaining and optimising the performance of the existing road network?

5. What would persuade us that options for investing in improving road safety are being identified and weighed appropriately?

6. What would persuade us that road investment and expenditure decisions - at the scheme and programme level - are the result of serious consideration of a genuinely broad range of options and their merits?

7. What would persuade us that road investment and expenditure decisions are likely to represent value for money over the long term?

Professor Steve Gooding – on the ‘why?’ behind the overall initiative

Pity the poor roads minister – the virtual bookshelf in their laptop computer positively heaving with advisory reports whose authors have little in common

other than the absolute conviction that the minister of the day - whoever they may be, whatever they are doing - is getting it all wrong (in which regard roads are probably not so different to any other aspect of public policy). ‘What then’, I hear you ask, ‘is the case for adding yet another volume to this treasury of wisdom?’ A question I asked myself when contemplating the case for convening the Road Investment Scrutiny Panel.

What persuaded me was first the coming together of slew of pressures and a set of opportunities that make this a sensible moment to draw breath and reflect on whether we are headed in the right direction, and second the chance to take account of a range of perspectives to produce something that, I hoped, would make for reasonably digestible, probably challenging but ultimately constructive reading, not just for the roads minister in Whitehall, but for all those charged with making decisions about future roads spending, because, as William Rees Jeffreys recognised, roads really do matter for all of us.

Professor Jillian Anable – on setting a precautionary limit to road traffic levels

In a world where the only thing we know for sure is that the climate is changing and we are not on track to insulate ourselves from the most extreme impacts, the context for assessing the value of road investments has totally changed compared to even a decade ago. In addition, car and heavy goods vehicle travel patterns across the network and across the week have been altered by Covid, Brexit, economic slowdown and restructuring. Yet, RIS 3 is likely to carry over many proposed road schemes that were based on decisions made in a totally different context several decades ago and any new schemes will use an appraisal process that is even older than that.

Some will argue that the way in which carbon emissions from road building are accounted for is improving all the time. This is good and it is essential, but it actually misses the point. Until such time as we are no longer relying on aspirational targets to decarbonise vehicles, construction materials and the electricity grid, a simpler set of criteria must be adopted to guide the initial scale and justification for any investment. First and foremost, we need to adopt a precautionary approach to assessing how much traffic of each vehicle type can be accommodated on the road network whilst carbon budgets are being met. The release of data on 12 January by the DfT says its mileage estimates are “not a direct output of decarbonising transport modelling”, and neither are their National Road Traffic Projections. It seems that the only scenario the DfT are not prepared to produce is the only one we actually need.

Professor Zoe Davies – on the rightful place to be taken by biodiversity enhancement

Globally, we are facing two interrelated environmental crises: the loss of biodiversity and climate breakdown. The need to protect and restore our ecosystems, and the species that inhabit them, has never been so critical.

This is particularly evident in the UK, which is one of the most nature-depleted nations globally. In fact, ensuring our ecosystems are intact and functioning properly is one of the most effective ways to mitigate climate change. Biodiversity also provides a diverse array of other benefits to society, such as improving human health, filtering air pollution and reducing flood risk. Road investment to date has, arguably, focused on minimising the impact on biodiversity. RIS 3 provides an opportunity to be proactive: we should take a strategic approach, at scale, to maximise the biodiversity value of the extensive soft estate managed by National Highways (and other highway authorities). This could not be more timely, given that the UK has just committed to protecting 30% of land area by 2030 after the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15).

Professor Karen Lucas – on distributional social impacts and exaggerated claims

Public concerns about inadequate consideration of the, often considerable, social, health and community impacts of major new road investment projects within the decision process have been one of the main reasons for their Direct Consent Orders being denied in recent years.

Currently, the benefits and disbenefits of road investments are averaged out across the whole of the project catchment area during appraisal, but they can be experienced very differently by the proximal communities and populations along their route.

As such, the full extent of the cumulative social consequences of the construction and operation of these projects is not properly evidenced, whilst claims about their social value to local communities are often exaggerated.

Consequently, the way in which the social, health and community impacts of major road projects are assessed needs to be revised to better take account of these important local outcomes.

Professor Stephen Glaister – on maintenance of local roads, having an agreed strategic view and sound appraisal

To meet carbon targets we need to take urgent action. But we will always need decent roads for the benefit of users of all kinds. Delayed maintenance of any essential infrastructure is a mistake leading to increased cost, more disruption, reduced safety and an unhappy public. The monitoring system for the National Highways network gives confidence that the strategic network is in moderately good condition and sufficient funding should continue to be made available under any scenario. But local roads maintenance lacks transparency and craves substantially more funding.

Attempting to manipulate carbon emissions by stopping all road enhancements will not be effective. First we need an agreed strategic view of the future of surface transport by fuel type and, crucially, implementation of the realistic policies—including reform of taxation and pricing—that might achieve the timescale. Then government can review the roads enhancement programme. Though national total traffic may have to be discouraged, specific enhancements may still be worthwhile: there is much historical under-investment to be addressed and local populations and industries move around. Proper, dispassionate and rounded scheme appraisal, including costing in carbon at the nationally agreed rate, is always necessary. Conjecturing will not produce a good outcome.

Professor Nicola Christie – on why safety matters for vulnerable road users too

Last Autumn England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, was one of four senior figures to become part of a new advisory panel, Active Travel England. This appointment recognises the importance of active travel in delivering low- cost, healthy travel and, if mode shift is achieved, helps decarbonise our environment. However, active travel cannot be delivered unless we reduce the dangers posed by roads that prioritise car drivers and road building over investment into creating safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, from all ages and backgrounds. In the press release for this

appointment safety is not mentioned once. Perceived safety is an important factor in decisions to walk or cycle. In some places people don’t have a choice and they have to walk so it is even more important to create safe infrastructure in deprived areas where people don’t have access to a car and are on the receiving end of risks posed by drivers. The Department for Transport promised a perceived safety indicator, but nothing has appeared. A citizen’s safety per se and, in this context, whilst walking or cycling should be a fundamental human right. Investment in roads should focus on holistic strategies that create environments that are safe for all and thereby help support sustainable mobility.

Andrew Crudgington – on the importance of a diversity of voices in shaping investment

The greatest single lesson I took away from acting as Secretary to the Panel is the value of bringing a much greater diversity of voices and perspectives into roads investment decision making.

This certainly applied to our own work. As an example, it was clear that those of us from a traditional engineering and infrastructure development background hadn’t grasped the size of the opportunity that investing in the biodiversity of the roads estate presents to do something positive about the nature crisis that is inextricably entwined with climate change.

More broadly, PAS 2080 – the publicly available standard for managing carbon in infrastructure - is meant to be driving us towards a build nothing/build less/build smart/ build efficiently decision making hierarchy for making interventions into infrastructure systems. I came away from the Panel sessions convinced that it is going to be people from non-traditional (at least in the roads world!) backgrounds – be that from other transport sectors or sectors further afield, such as gaming – who we’ll need to access if we are to find and develop these kind of solutions to our transport problems.

Professor Phil Goodwin – on making the robust investment case with sufficient scrutiny

Major road building projects are controversial because the process used for designing and approving them is faulty. Appraising, scrutinising, giving approval and finally deciding often leads to increasing division, not a build up of consensus.

I think the reason for this cannot be dismissed as nimbyism. It is because the process itself does not give voice to the seriousness of genuine scientific and public concern about the environmental and economic impacts of the growth in traffic and the schemes to provide for it.

Appraisal, only carried out after schemes have already been given political approval, is controlled by the Scheme Promoter, who submits to public examination many volumes of highly technical and expensive argument that the scheme is a good one. While local residents, professionals, local authorities and others have the right to object, they are not allowed access to the models developed with public funds.

There is very limited regulation and independent scrutiny of technical methods. There is never full consideration of viable alternatives, such as public transport improvements and management of demand, or the significance of alternative futures for travel demand or the climate. There has not been a serious assessment of alternative future sizes and designs of the road network as a whole, or of the potential benefits of a system based on less traffic.

Professor Glenn Lyons – on matters of judgement and perspective

Evidence is not synonymous with truth when looking to the future, even if false precision that seems often to accompany appraisal evidence can create an illusion to the contrary. DfT emphasises that its appraisal guidance is just that - guidance. It provides latitude and unavoidably requires judgement: judgement about which scenarios should be used

to reflect uncertainty decades into the future; judgement over alternative options to shortlist and then invest in; judgement over future safety consequences of an intervention; judgement over modelling assumptions; judgement over who becomes involved in making the judgements; and ... so the judgements go on. The long history of road investment and underlying appraisal may have created norms, biases and blind spots that are now clouding judgements - at a time when transport and society are in a state of considerable flux and when sound judgement matters more than ever if road investment and expenditure are to exemplify strong stewardship of the future. We need to stand back and get some perspective - indeed perspectives plural - on road investment rather than letting a sense of haste result in false economy and later regret. Eight perspectives unified in their reported judgement - I like the sound of that, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together.

Road Investment Scrutiny Panel (2023). Key questions for road investment and spending. A report prepared with support from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, University of the West of England, January.

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