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Mon August 02 2021

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Watchdog warns of slippage in roads programme

16 Jul Highways England has been commended for hitting its targets last year but warned that project delays threaten to knock plans off course.

The Office of Rail & Road’s (ORR) annual assessment of Highways England finds the company met all targets in its key performance indicators (KPIs) for providing fast and reliable journeys and maintaining the network.

But it warns of the need to address delays to some key projects and subsequent forecast underspends. 

The year to 31st March 2021 was the first year of Highways England’s second road investment strategy period (RIS2). It was also a year in which road traffic was 60% normal levels, attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ORR report* says: “During the year Highways England started work on five schemes and opened three schemes for traffic, meeting its revised commitments for enhancement schemes. It also delivered the majority of its renewals commitments for its key assets in 2020-21 and began to deliver efficiency against its KPI target. However, an increasing number of enhancement schemes have been delayed due to planning issues, causing RP2 forecast underspends on some large schemes in development.”

It continues: “We are concerned that planning risks may impact more schemes as the road period progresses. This in turn could detrimentally affect road users, for example by causing more road works to be carried out concurrently than originally planned. Highways England must set out more clearly the steps it is taking to mitigate the impact of this on road users.”

Highways England has committed to providing ORR with a plan setting out how it will address recommendations.

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Highways England is also being required to provide assurance to ORR, road users and to the wider public about how it will appropriately factor in the environment, support biodiversity, and lead on the broader decarbonisation of the road network in line with government’s recently-published Transport Decarbonisation Plan. 

Office of Rail & Road chief executive John Larkinson said: “Highways England, like many others this past year, faced a set of extraordinary circumstances, and it responded well – keeping the network open for the smooth flow of essential goods and people around the country. 

“It has met all its performance targets; however, as traffic levels rise to pre-pandemic levels, Highways England must maintain its focus on road safety and we expect it to deliver on the safety-focused changes in the all-lane running programme.

“While there has been good early progress on delivering road schemes, we can see delays to starting some large schemes, as well as some significant underspends. Delays to delivery of these schemes also threaten Highways England’s efficiency and wider performance targets. We are in discussions with Highways England and expect it to take steps to address our concerns.”

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* Highways Monitor: Annual assessment of Highways England’s performance

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