Better roads: Improving England's Strategic Road Network - Transport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The Strategic Road Network (SRN) in England consists of the motorways and the most significant A-roads. It is managed by the Highways Agency, which is an executive agency of the Department for Transport (DfT) with a total budget of £4.7 billion in 2014-15.[1] The equivalent networks in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are the responsibility of their devolved Governments.

2. The SRN is 4,300 miles long and makes up 2.4% of the surfaced road network.[2] More than 30% of all road journeys and more than 65% of road freight journeys use the SRN.[3] The network is a crucial part of England's infrastructure, and it is especially important to business. However, we heard views that parts of it are poorly maintained, provides for unreliable journeys, offers inadequate capacity and leaves many areas of the country poorly connected.[4] The DfT told us that Government investment in road schemes has been historically inconsistent over the years, with "problems of stop start funding" hampering improvements to the road network.[5]

Government strategy and the roads debate

3. Britain's first motorway was opened in December 1958 at the beginning of a major new road building programme.[6] In the 1960s, contracts were signed for many miles of motorways and plans were laid to upgrade much of the existing network. That policy continued into the 1980s, at a speed largely determined by the funding allocated by the Treasury.[7]

4. In 1989, the then Government introduced a White Paper, Roads for prosperity, which announced a greatly expanded motorway and trunk road programme.[8] This emphasised relieving congestion on inter-urban routes between towns and cities.[9] Although the then Government examined other options for reducing congestion—for example, increasing the use of rail for freight or the imposition of higher taxes on road users—it concluded that an expanded programme of road widening and new road building was the only way to relieve congestion, a policy which became known as 'predict and provide'.[10]

5. Many of the road schemes introduced in the 1990s generated intense opposition. Public concerns about traffic pollution and the destruction of the natural environment resulted in high-profile protests, such as the 1992 protest against the M3 extension at Twyford Down in Hampshire.[11] At that time, a number of arguments were advanced on why road building was unnecessary. Some people argued that a policy of building new roads could simply increase congestion as more people were attracted to travel by motor vehicle—a phenomenon known as 'induced traffic demand'.[12] That analysis was partly accepted in 1994 by the DfT's Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) in a report Trunk roads and the generation of traffic. That report concluded that "induced traffic can and does occur, probably quite extensively", albeit varying widely by location:[13]

    Induced traffic is of greatest importance in the following circumstances:

·  where the network is operating or is expected to operate close to capacity;

·  where traveller responsiveness to changes in travel times or costs is high, as may occur where trips are suppressed by congestion and then released when the network is improved;

·  where the implementation of a scheme causes large changes in travel costs.

    This suggests that the categories of road where appraisal needs to be most careful are improvements to roads in and around urban areas, estuary crossing schemes, and strategic capacity-enhancing interurban schemes, including motorway widening.[14]

It added that "the economic value of a scheme can be overestimated by the omission of even a small amount of induced traffic".[15]

6. In the 1990s, other commentators argued that car use had reached a peak level in the UK as well as in other developed countries, an argument which became known as 'peak car'.[16] Professor Phil Goodwin, Emeritus Professor of Transport Policy, University College London and University of the West of England, explained this to us:

    …car use in particular is at or close to some kind of saturation level, and will remain stable, or even decline, in future, depending on what policies are followed… [This] is based on evidence that population and economic growth can happen without traffic growth, this possibility being created by changing land use patterns, which are happening, and by changing attitudes and behaviour, starting with the young and ramifying through the rest of the population.[17]

7. Both the 1989 and 1997 national road traffic forecasts overestimated the growth in car traffic, which opponents of road building claimed as vindication for their campaigns.[18] In 1994, the then Government changed its policy, reducing the budget for Roads for prosperity and announcing a revised programme. That revised programme concentrated on motorway widening schemes and urgently needed bypasses, while avoiding projects which might have been contentious.[19]

8. In 1997, the new Labour Government announced a strategic review of the roads programme and brought forward a White Paper, A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone, along with a daughter document A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England.[20]A New Deal for Transport stated that "predict and provide didn't work". It proposed to reduce congestion through traffic control, better road maintenance, safer roads, promoting other modes of transport and changing development policy, which the then Government argued added up to an integrated transport strategy.[21]

9. A New Deal for Transport did not end road building, although it reduced it. The 10-year transport plan in 2000 identified £16.2 billion for capital investment in the road network, stating that there would be a "strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites".[22] In 2003, the DfT announced a further £3 billion of new money for strategic roads, while publishing a discussion paper, Managing our roads, which examined options for managing the road network in the light of the forecast 20% to 25% increase in traffic by 2010. This included options for traffic management, reducing delays caused by utility companies, other congestion reduction tactics and road user charging.[23]

10. In 2005, the Treasury and DfT commissioned Sir Rod Eddington, who was previously the chief executive officer of British Airways, to examine the impact of transport decisions on the economy and environment of the UK and to make recommendations on how the transport network should be modernised. The Eddington Transport Study was published by HM Treasury and the DfT in December 2006. It fully supported road user charging and recommended an integrated transport strategy approach to most transport problems.[24] It argued that the main problems with congestion were in urban areas, that the economic benefits of new inter-urban road building were unproven and that the scope for major new strategic road schemes was limited.[25] Following that report, the Government introduced proposals for a national road pricing scheme in line with Eddington's recommendation. This was dropped following a campaign against the proposal and an online petition which attracted 1.8 million signatures.[26]

11. In July 2009, the then Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron MP, ruled out a national road pricing scheme under a future Conservative Government but said that he was "happy to look at road tolls" to finance new roads.[27] In 2012, HM Treasury and the DfT were asked by Mr Cameron, now Prime Minister, to consider new options for funding strategic roads.[28] The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Robert Goodwill MP, told us that the study fed into the Action for roads Command Paper.[29]

12. Sir John Armitt, Chairman of National Express Group, summarised the development of the SRN to date:

    The road network has gone through a series of phases. Maybe it was slow, but there was clearly a plan through the´60s, ´70s and ´80s. Some people might say that we should have done it in 20 years rather than 30, but that is probably the nature of public investment. We have seen a significant change in attitude, which I think has held back continued development through the ´90s and during the last 10 years.[30]

Action for roads

13. In 2011, the DfT published A fresh start for the Strategic Road Network, a paper written by the incoming non-executive chairman of the Highways Agency, Alan Cook.[31] This examined the road network and the Highways Agency and highlighted potential efficiencies and better ways of managing the SRN. It made the following recommendations:

·  The DfT should publish a long-term strategy for motorways and trunk roads.

·  The DfT should set out a predominantly outcome-based specification for the road network, detailing firm commitments for the next five years and with a challenging target for financial efficiency.

·  The DfT should set out a five-year funding package to accompany the specification for the road network with the support of the Treasury.

·  If Ministers decide that new road connections are required, the DfT should examine the business case for building and operating these as private toll roads in the first instance.

·  The DfT should remodel the Highways Agency to reflect best practice in successful infrastructure companies and provide greater independence from government

·  The Highways Agency board should devise and lead a change programme in the new organisation.

·  The reformed Highways Agency, working with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), should initiate and develop a new generation of route-based strategies.

14. The DfT built on Alan Cook's recommendations with the publication of the Action for roads Command Paper in July 2013.[32]Action for roads set out proposals for roads policy to 2021, including:

·  A £24 billion funding package for maintenance, capacity and expansion of the SRN.[33]

·  A Roads Investment Strategy (RIS), to be brought forward by the DfT before the next election, outlining plans and performance criteria for the road network to 2021.[34]

·  A proposal to turn the Highways Agency into a government-owned company (GoCo), with a six-year funding settlement from 2015.[35] The company would operate the road network and implement road projects developed by the DfT.

15. The DfT consulted on its proposals in relation to the Highways Agency in late 2013. We were invited to submit our views in March, before the DfT reached a decision on the future of the Agency.[36]


16. We launched our inquiry on Better roads: Improving England's Strategic Road Network in September 2013 following the publication of Action for roads. This topic had been proposed by several members of the public earlier that year. In our call for evidence, we sought views on the following:

·  How will the policies set out in the Action for roads Command Paper improve the SRN for all road users, while also improving the environment?

·  How does the Government's policy for roads link with planning for other transport modes?

·  How reliable is the forecast for growth in demand for the SRN? How should the Government deal with uncertainty in its forecast?

·  How can we improve the reliability and efficiency of travel on the SRN? What impact will new technology have?

·  What mechanisms are there for Government to increase investment in strategic roads and attract new investors? Are there good examples from other countries that could be applied in the UK?

·  How should the Highways Agency be reformed to make it the world's leading highway operator? What roles should Government and the private sector play to ensure better management of the SRN?

17. We received 60 submissions of written evidence and took oral evidence at four sessions between November 2013 and February 2014. In addition, we visited Toronto, Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia, in February 2014 to examine in detail alternative operating and funding models for roads. The programme for this visit is set out in Annex 1. In the course of our inquiry, we also commissioned research from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) on peak car use in Britain. This research is published on our website. We are grateful to POST for its work. Finally, we are grateful for the assistance we received in this inquiry from our specialist adviser, Richard Wigginton.[37]

1   Highways Agency, Business Plan 2013-14, April 2013, p17 Back

2   Peak car use in Britain, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2013 Back

3   Peak car use in Britain, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2013 Back

4   SRN 10, SRN 18, SRN 30, SRN 38, SRN 43, SRN 52, SRN 55 Back

5   SRN 8 Back

6   Barry Hutton, Planning Sustainable Transport (Oxford, 2013), p.58, "Ernest Marples opening Britain's first motorway", YouTube Back

7   Barry Hutton, Planning Sustainable Transport (Oxford, 2013), p.58 Back

8   Department of Transport, Roads for Prosperity, Cm 693, May 1989 Back

9   Roads: highway infrastructure, Standard Note SN/BT/1448, House of Commons Library, November 2010 Back

10   Ibid. Back

11   Ibid, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Ninth Report of Session 1998-99, Integrated Transport White Paper, HC 32, para 16, "The Twyford Down M3 protest in 1992 - in pictures", The Guardian, 28 September 2012, Back

12   SRN 6, SRN 12, SRN 12, SRN 16, SRN 28, SRN 44 Back

13   Department of Transport, Trunk roads and the generation of traffic, December 1994, p.ii Back

14   Department of Transport, Trunk roads and the generation of traffic, December 1994, p.iii Back

15   Ibid. Back

16   SRN 6, SRN 12, SRN 44 Back

17   Q 2 [Professor Phil Goodwin] Back

18   SRN 28 Back

19   Roads: highway infrastructure, Standard Note SN/BT/1448, House of Commons Library, November 2010 Back

20   Department for Transport, Local Government and Regions, A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone, Cm 3950, July 1998 and A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England,July 1998 Back

21   Ibid. Back

22   Department for Transport, Local Government and Regions, Transport Ten Year Plan 2000, 6.29 Back

23   Ibid. Back

24   Eddington Transport Study, Standard Note SN/BT/4208, House of Commons Library, March 2010 Back

25   SRN 18, SRN 28 Back

26   SRN 12 Back

27   "Motorists face paying tolls on new roads under Tory plans", Daily Telegraph, 27 July 2009, "David Cameron's right on road tolls", Daily Telegraph, 27 July 2009, Back

28   Cabinet Office, Terms of reference for the Feasibility Study on Roads Reform, March 2012, SRN 12,  Back

29   Q 265 Mr Goodwill Back

30   Q 59 [Sir John Armitt] Back

31   SRN 8, Department for Transport, A fresh start for the Strategic Road Network, November 2011 Back

32   Q 35 [Mr Cook], Department for Transport, Action for Roads: a network for the 21st century, Cm 8679, July 2013 Back

33   Q 249 [Mr Goodwill] Back

34   SRN 8 Back

35   SRN 8 Back

36   Annex 2  Back

37   See Formal Minutes, Appendix B.  Back

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Prepared 7 May 2014