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Highways England in the money with £27.4bn five-year plan

20 March 2020
 

There are road improvement plans aplenty in the Government’s new five-year Road Investment Strategy (RIS) for England’s Strategic Road Network. Overall, the RIS, covering the years 2020/21-2024/25, provides expenditure of £27.4bn to cover Highways England’s needs – operations, maintenance and enhancements. 

This is the second RIS period (known as Road Period 2, RP2) and the DfT says the size of the funding pot is about 60 per cent greater than the £17bn of RIS1, which ends this month. The big increase coincides with an important change in how Highways England is funded. From next month, Vehicle Excise Duty paid in England is ring-fenced into a National Roads Fund (NRF) that will pay for all of HE’s activities. There will be money to spare too for improvements to the Major Road Network of the most important local authority roads (additional to the £27.4bn).   

“The funding settlement of a RIS is fixed, and defended in law, to ensure that long-term infrastructure plans are not sacrificed to fill short-term budget gaps,” explains the DfT. “Unexpected financial pressures would necessarily have to be managed through the scheduling of work. Should the Government decide to specify new tasks for Highways England to deliver, this would need to be covered by additional funding.” 

Publication of the RIS is the culmination of an extensive work programme, including Highways England’s route strategies, the Government’s area-based strategic road studies (see panel), Transport Focus’s research into road user priorities; a consultation on Highways England’s Initial Report, and a draft RIS published in October 2018, which set the Government’s objectives for the period. 

England’s sub-national transport bodies (STBs) have played a part but the DfT recognises they want a bigger  role. “We recognise the aspirations of these bodies as they progress in maturity to work even more closely on the development of the next RIS and that is something we will explore with them in the coming months.”

The strategy was also informed by Highways England’s regional traffic models and the DfT’s road traffic forecasts of 2018 (‘RTF18’). Says the DfT: “Traffic growth on the Strategic Road Network (SRN) is forecast to be strong and positive in all scenarios considered by RTF18, ranging between growth of 29 per cent and 59 per cent by 2050, driven by forecast increases in the number of car trips and trip distances, as well as increasing light goods vehicle traffic.” Traffic growth on the SRN between 2013 and 2018 was about 11 per cent.  

The Department accepts that overall trip rates for the majority of trip purposes are declining and there is a trend of more young people not learning to drive. “However, these changes that would reduce demand are outweighed by the increase in journeys made by older drivers, and the expectation of a continued rise in total population. In addition, holiday trips are forecast to more than double by 2050, resulting in longer average distance car trips. As longer trips are more likely to be routed on the SRN, demand is likely to continue to grow faster than on local roads.”

A large chunk of expenditure will be needed to complete enhancements that have been started in RIS1, as well as some RIS1 schemes that have yet to commence. The DfT acknowledges that slippage could hit schemes programmed to start in RIS2. “Whereas RIS1 promised that its projects would start by the end of the period, we now wish to be clear that there is a possibility that external factors could delay the start of some projects beyond 2025.” 

 The full list of new enhancements is in the accompanying table. Among the biggest are: dualling the A66 Transpennine route between the M6 and the A1(M); building a new Lower Thames Crossing between Kent and Thurrock (Essex); dualling the A303 past Stonehenege; and improving the A46 ‘Trans-Midlands trade corridor’ between the M5 and the Humber Ports, with work in RP2 completing a continuous dual carriageway between Lincoln and Warwick. 

During RIS2, preparatory work will also begin on 32 schemes for start in RIS3 (also listed in the table).

Four ring-fenced funds will operate in RIS2, covering: environment and wellbeing (£345m); users and communities (£169m); innovation and modernisation (£216m); safety and congestion (£140m). 

Maintenance will see three areas receiving a substantial increase in expenditure because of the age of assets: 

  • Structures – bridges, underpasses, retaining walls and similar – will need more extensive renewal works
  • Safety barriers will require replacement at a faster rate to make sure that they remain effective 
  • The oldest type of concrete road surface (“pavement”), with its distinctive ridged construction, will need to be phased out entirely over several road periods, says the DfT. It will take around 25 years to complete the task in full; the process begins in RIS2, with around £400m. 
  • A further £2bn is expected to be spent on more traditional aspects of renewing and maintaining the network, including about £1.4bn on resurfacing. 
  • The RIS sets a number of key performance indicators against which Highways England will be assessed. These include:
  • Safety: a 50 per cent reduction in killed or serious injuries against a 2005-09 average baseline, keeping Highways England broadly on the same trajectory as RIS1. 
  • Performance: Average delay at the end of RP2 to be no worse than at the end of RP1. During RP1 so far, average delay on the SRN has grown from 8.9 seconds per vehicle mile to 9.5 seconds per vehicle mile. The measure takes the difference between the observed travel time and the speed limit travel time. 
  • Incident clearance rate: 86 per cent of motorway incidents to be cleared within one hour. 
  • Air quality: the HE must bring links agreed with the DfT and based on the Pollution Control Mapping model into compliance with legal nitrogen dioxide limits in the shortest possible time. 
  • Highways England’s carbon emissions: reduce them as a result of electricity consumption, fuel use and other day-to-day operational activities during RP2 to levels defined by baselining and target setting activities in 2020/21.
  • Road user satisfaction: achieve an 82 per cent road user satisfaction score in 2020/21 and 2021/22, with year-on-year increases in the following years. 
  • Total efficiency: the RIS sets an efficiency target of £2.304bn on capital and operational expenditure to be achieved by the end of RP2. 

 
 
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