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Government paints bright future for road builders

17 Jul 13 The government has set out its plans for legislation to prevent future governments from cutting the roads budget.

The plans were set out in a ‘command paper’ published yesterday called Action for roads: a network for the 21st century.

In it, the government promises to resurface 80% of the strategic network in the next seven years. Fifty-two planned road improvement schemes were also listed, although only 16 of them are new.

There will be feasibility studies to look at ways of improving the A303, the A1 north of Newcastle, the A1 Newcastle to Gateshead, trans-Pennine routes between Manchester and Sheffield, and the A27 on the south coast.

Much hope is stored in moving the management of the network from a Next Steps agency, the Highways Agency, established in 1994 to protect it from political interference, into a publicly-owned corporation, like the BBC, to make it further removed from the democratic process and elected politicians.

“The Highways Agency will be set up as a publicly-owned strategic highways company,” the report says. “This will put it outside of the day-to-day control of ministers, leaving it free to run the road network.”

It believes that management of the highways will become free of “Whitehall red tape”, since corporations evidently do not suffer from bureaucracy.

The government says that introducing legislation to protect road budgets “will give the construction and maintenance industry the confidence they need to recruit and train skilled worker”.

The report says: “Stable investment in transport construction will mean more apprenticeships and more investment in training workers, to make sure that the sector is staffed to meet long-term needs.”

It adds: “Certainty of work programmes also allows the supply chain to change their working practices and adopt new techniques that otherwise would not be profitable. For example, 24-hour working becomes viable when introduced on a large scale in a way that it is not for an individual project. 40% of scheme costs are related to time, so developments like this could reduce the costs of maintenance and improvements and the impact on road users.

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Longer-term funding can also support better relationships with suppliers and reduce unit costs. In Birmingham, long-term planning through a new highway PFI deal has provided a clear picture of future demand, allowing the contractor to place an order for one million tonnes of asphalt, reducing costs by at least 10%.”

While moving the Highways Agency further away from Whitehall might make a future privatisation simpler, both practically and politically, Action for Roads makes no suggestion that future funding will come from anywhere but the Treasury.

Commentators suspect that the government preferred to duck this thorny issue. Jon Hart, infrastructure partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said: “It is perhaps disappointing that this has not proved an opportunity to start a grown up discussion around how motorists are going to be required over the long term to pay for better roads.”

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that the changes “will bring an end to the short-term thinking that has blighted investment in England’s roads so that we can deliver the infrastructure our economy needs. Backed by the government’s £28bn commitment, they will give us a road network fit for the 21st century and beyond.”

The Department for Transport intends to consult on these proposals in autumn 2013.

The proposals are in line with the recommendations made by Alan Cook in his review of the Highways Agency’s work: A fresh start for the strategic road network.

The document is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/action-for-roads-a-network-for-the-21st-century.

Send your views to roads.reform@dft.gsi.gov.uk

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