In June 2014, we looked at the plans set out in the draft Infrastructure Bill to transform the Highways Agency into a government owned, but quasi- independent, company. This so-called GoCo will have the freedom – within certain parameters – to make decisions on the development and maintenance of the strategic roads network (SRN), without the need for day to day intervention and oversight by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Key to these parameters will be the Road Investment Strategy (RIS) envisaged by the Infrastructure Bill. The RIS determines the investment and objectives that must be delivered by the GoCo over a five year period (the Road Period).
The first version of the RIS was published, alongside the latest update of the National Infrastructure Plan, as part of the flurry of infrastructure initiatives accompanying last December’s Autumn Statement.
It is impressive in its scope, detail and ambition – and, in places, quite visionary – although it could arguably be shorter and more accessible, if it had not divided itself into a number of separate documents (Overview, Strategic Vision, Investment Plan, and Performance Specification) which necessarily spend some time summarising and cross- referencing each other.
So what is the core message of the RIS in relation to investment and objectives?
The key investment problem which it was designed to address was succinctly summarised – at least, so far as maintenance is concerned – by the Public Accounts Committee a few weeks before the Autumn Statement:
“[DfT’s] piecemeal and stop-go approach to funding for road maintenance in recent decades has made it difficult for highways authorities to deliver maintenance cost-effectively, with too much reactive work in response to flooding and other events and not enough focus on preventative work that is less expensive in the long-term.”
The good news, in response to this, is that the RIS does seek to provide certainty and committed funding. It does this by allocating c.GBP 300 million for maintenance and over GBP 700 million for renewals for each of the five years of the first Road Period (2015/16 to 2019/20), with new schemes receiving a further GBP 7.7 billion in total across the five years (increasing from c.GBP 1 billion in 2015/16 to c.GBP 2.2 billion in 2019/20).
Of these new schemes, 14 are already under construction and 24 are scheduled to start in the “early” part of the Road Period, whilst the great majority (78) are scheduled for the “late” part (unsurprisingly, the precise timings are a little vague).
Behind the headline delivery of all these new schemes (whether they be Smart Motorways, Expressways, A-road enhancements, or tunnels at Stonehenge), what is all this committed investment in maintenance, renewal and enhancement intended to deliver, by way of the objectives identified by the RIS for its first Road Period? Well, the RIS does not shy away from hard numbers in terms of outcomes. Its KPIs include:
- A 40% decrease in deaths and serious injury by end 2020, when compared to 2005-2009
- 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
- Efficiency savings of GBP 1.2 billion in capital expenditure over the first Road Period
Note that these efficiency savings – presumably, to be driven by the new found freedom and commercial acumen of the GoCo, (operating with the security of committed long term funding) – have already been factored into the investment figures outlined above. In other words, if they aren’t achieved, it must follow that there will be a funding shortfall in delivering the RIS’s investment plan.
But despite all these hard facts, figures and targets, the RIS still finds time to dream about what the SRN will look like in 2040 – a very comfortable 20 years beyond the expiry of its first Road Period.
And its vision is one of almost Zen-like calm. Death and serious injury will be almost non existent, average travel speed of a mile a minute will be reality and roads will not only be globally recognised and greener, but also cost significantly less to build and maintain than they do now.
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 makes today’s congestion seem a small price to pay.