UK road investment strategy questioned

A report from the House of Commons Transport Committee recommended cancellation of some major new projects such as the Stonehenge Tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing.
Highway & Network Management / July 31, 2023 1 minute Read
By David Arminas
Too big? The House of Commons Transport Committee thinks so (image courtesy National Highways)

More money for pothole repairs and fewer expensive big road projects should be the priority of England’s National Highways agency, according to a just-published report.

That’s the main finding of report by a group of UK politicians, the House of Commons Transport Committee, which reviewed the strategy of National Highways, the arms-length agency responsible for the Strategic Road Network of England. The SRN covers motorways and other major mostly dual-carriageways in England; other agencies are responsible for similar networks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The committee report, called Strategic Road Investment, noted that the government has identified the SRN as a key driver of economic growth and productivity. “However, the extent to which further investment in the [road] network would help to boost growth, in comparison to investment in other modes of transport and connectivity, is contested.”

To that end, “there has been a consistent theme of overly ambitious portfolio planning, and National Highways has overspent and underdelivered”. The report recommended that the government cancel some major new road construction projects and prioritise better maintenance of the existing network. Such projects that it said should be abandoned or scaled back are the planned Stonehenge Tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing near London and the money earmarked for more resurfacing of existing local and national roads.

The focus of the rolling five-year plans called Road Investment Strategies should focus on maintenance and renewal. “The existing strategic road network is ageing and requires significant renewal work in places, while many users want to see better day-to-day maintenance and upkeep of the network,” the report said.

“Future investment should be focused on renewing older parts of the SRN and ensuring that resources are available to run the network in a way which better meets the needs of the drivers and industries that rely on it.” For this to happen, the report said future Road Investment Strategies “should prioritise investment in the maintenance, renewal and resilience of existing assets over brand new projects.”

The current Road Investment Strategy is RIS 2, where from 2020 to 2025 the government has earmarked around £27.4 billion – US$35.12 billion – to be spent on the SRN. According to the document, published in early 2020, the average number of vehicles passing a point on a typical stretch of SRN road within 24 hours is 57,500. For all other local roads combined it is around 2,750.

National Highways already is consulting road user groups and the construction sector for RIS 3 which has an emphasis on carbon reduction as well as on maintenance and delivery of existing projects.

Marie-Claude Hemming, director of operations for the UK’s Civil Engineering Contractors Association, CECA, is on record as welcoming the emphasis on carbon reduction. But she has also warned of the economic climate and inflation that could make bigger projects harder to complete efficiently.

Her comments come as National Highways has had to cancel some contracts over cost concerns.

RIS 3 will be published in late 2025 or early 2026 and soon after must be approved by the UK Parliament.

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