First published in Partnerships Bulletin May 2015

What Highways England means for the UK's road network

One of the key measures of the Infrastructure Act was the transformation - on 1 April 2015 – of the Highways Agency into Highways England, a government owned, but quasi-independent, company.

Highways England has the freedom –within certain parameters - to make decisions on the development and maintenance of the strategic roads network, without the need for day-to-day intervention and oversight by the Department for Transport.

Key to these parameters is the Road Investment Strategy (RIS) envisaged by the Act. The RIS determines the investment and objectives that must be delivered by Highways England over five years (the Road Period). The first version of the RIS was published, alongside the latest update of the National Infrastructure Plan, in December.

It is impressive in its detail and ambition. Its key objective is to remedy the much-criticised stop-start approach to investment in road infrastructure, with its emphasis on short-term, reactive maintenance and its barriers to long-term strategic planning.

To do this, the RIS seeks to provide certainty and committed funding. It allocates £300m for maintenance, and over £700m for renewals, for each year in the first Road Period (from 2015/16), with new schemes receiving a further £7.7bn in total (increasing from £lbn in 2015/16 to £2.2bn in 2019/20).

Behind the headlines of the new schemes (whether Smart Motorways, Expressways, A-road enhancements, or a tunnel at Stonehenge), the RIS has also set some hard numbers in terms of outcomes. Its KPIs include: a 40%decrease in deaths and serious injury by end 2020, compared to 2005-09; a road user satisfaction rate of 90% by end March 2017; 97%lane availability in any one rolling year; 85% of motorway accidents cleared within the hour; and efficiency savings of £1.2bn in capital expenditure over the first Road Period.

The extent to which the first Road Period achieves these objectives will be subject to scrutiny by the renamed Office of Rail and Road (formerly, the Office of Rail Regulation), which has been appointed to monitor Highways England.

Just before its official launch, Highways England published its first delivery plan, which aims to set out in detail how it will deliver the strategic goals of the RIS. It also provided an update on progress of the new schemes promised by the RIS. Sixteen are now said to be under construction, representing £lbn of investment.

Of 26 schemes announced in Spending Review 2013 (at a value of £Sbn), all are expected to commence construction within the current Road Period, and half should be complete by its end.

And of the 49 schemes identified in last year's Autumn Statement, all are also expected to start construction by the end of 2019/20, bringing a further £lbn of investment into the sector by that point.

Election potholes?

Lurking behind all these grand plans, however, is the fact that Highways England has started its life at the very point at which the UK is facing what promises to be the closest and, perhaps, least conclusive General Election of modern times.

This is, however, almost certainly much less of a cause for concern than it might once have been. The new-found independence of Highways England, and the statutory framework for long-term strategic investment which underpins it, has brought a stability to the sector that not even the uncertainty of this General Election seems likely to change.

The only significant wobble, so far, appears to lie in Labour's desire to delay two of the schemes identified in the RIS -the A27 Arundel bypass, and upgrades to the A358 in the West Country -to free up £200m for a promised rail fare freeze.  It should be borne in mind, however, that these schemes are still at feasibility stage, and so do not fall into the categories outlined above which are due to start construction by the end of the first Road Period.

More broadly, there is nothing to suggest that Labour's commitment to long-term strategic investment in infrastructure as a key driver for economic growth, is not at least as strong as that of the other main parties -especially given the confirmation in its manifesto of a commitment to an independent National Infrastructure Commission.

A clear road ahead

Whatever the outcome of the election, therefore, it does seem that contractors can look ahead with considerable confidence to that most prized of all infrastructure assets: a substantial long-term  pipeline of funded projects, delivered through ongoing contractual frameworks, and managed by a stable and experienced public sector partner.

If this is right, it may be worth reminding ourselves for a moment of the ambitious long-term vision set out in the RIS for what the road network will look like in 2040.

This vision is one of almost Zen-like calm.  Virtually none of Highways England's very satisfied road users will be killed or seriously injured, while they travel at average speeds of a mile a minute, on a world leading network.

What's more, this network will cost only half of what it does today to build and maintain, and will never breach air quality regulations, create little noise pollution, and will actually increase biodiversity.

For those of us who will still be driving in 2040 (assuming anyone does actually still `drive' their smart cars at that point), it's a vision that...almost... makes today's congestion seem a small price to pay.