Statistically, Justine Greening may not have long to deliver a lasting benefit for our country. She is the eighth Secretary of State for Transport to hold office in the last ten years. If she beats the average term, her legacy could be HS2. She can make another important difference more quickly and less controversially, if she embraces the recommendations of the Cook Report – Alan Cook’s study of how to make the most of our strategic road network (SRN).
Mr Cook recognises that, in spite of its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the Highways Agency is looking anomalous in being the only major infrastructure operator still run by civil servants. More significantly, he has identified the need for the Government to act not so much as service provider but as champion for the consumer – the road user; and he acknowledges how vital the performance of the SRN is to national prosperity.
Parts of the SRN are already regularly stressed. Yet this finite resource faces year on year increase in demand. No government has the answer to this problem but there are improvements to be made. To meet the challenge, Mr Cook’s package of recommendations, taken together, would redefine responsibilities and generate a more enduring and cost effective strategy for the SRN both for these straitened times and beyond. They include:
- the Government should publish a long term strategy for the SRN;
- The Government should publish an outcome-based specification of commitments for the next five years, which would include performance, safety and environmental standards to be met by the network manager – and within a financial target so that due regard is paid to the taxpayer. (This looks similar to the model for Network Rail of five year control periods and high level output statements, which has done so much to raise standards and performance in the rail industry);
- Ministers and the DfT should focus on being champion of road users, challenging the network manager to ensure that its specification is achieved;
- the network manager should be allocated a five year funding package and be given greater commercial freedom;
- if new routes and links are needed, funding them by private tolls should be examined;
- the Highways Agency should be reshaped and given greater independence;
- the network manager should develop with local authorities and LEPs new route-based strategies. (There is a parallel here with Network Rail’s route utilisation strategies).
In summary, the recommendations echo recent and continuing changes in other infrastructure sectors. They build on the work of (amongst others) Eddington and McNulty and, in this sector, the RAC Foundation. They offer the best chance of achieving better value from this national asset.
Justine Greening announced that the Government will publish its response to the Cook Report ‘early in 2012’. As the Cook Report has been produced by a small and experienced team from her own Department, the Highways Agency and HM Treasury, there is a good prospect that thinking in her Department is already closely aligned with Mr Cook’s. Mr Cook’s recommendations will not grab national headlines but they provide Justine Greening with the opportunity to leave a worthwhile legacy if she will see it through.