In any talk about government business and policy, the word "reform" is never far away. It's the catch-all term for changes to the way things are done in the hope of making them better. Police reform, heath reform, law reform - it's never ending.
Trunk roads have been reformed any number of times. Originally, County Councils acted as agents for the Ministry of Transport; since then we've had devolution of trunk road management in Scotland and Wales, the creation and abolition of regional Road Construction Units, experiments with leasing sections of the road network under long-term DBFO contracts, and so on.
Since 1994, trunk roads in England have been managed by the Highways Agency, an executive agency of the Department of Transport, but a couple of years ago that changed. On 1 April 2014, it became Highways England, a government-owned company, putting an arm's length body at the end of a much longer arm. Before, the Department told the Agency what it wanted and handed over money to pay for the work. Now, the running of the English trunk road network is, in theory, more autonomous from political whim.
It's based on a system that seems to work well for the railways, where Network Rail is the government-owned company that implements Rail Investment Strategies over successive five-year "control periods". As part of the changes the rail regulator, formerly the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), became the Office of Road and Rail (still ORR), and will oversee Highways England's business.
How it works
In 2013, when the creation of Highways England was announced, the coalition Government also announced it would be creating the first Road Investment Strategy, or RIS1. That was published in late 2014. It runs from 2015 to 2020.
That could have been done without converting the Highways Agency into a private company, so the other important change is that the DfT has very nearly washed its hands of responsibility for delivering road schemes.
How to get that wish-list of improvement works done, how the work should be phased, what it will cost, how inflation will affect the potential to get them all done within the fixed budget of £15.2bn and whether schemes are popular or not - none of these things need bother Whitehall any longer, certainly not to the degree they used to. Highways England is expected to make its own decisions, prioritising its work, managing its spending and coordinating its operations to improve efficiency without having its timescales and funding micro-managed from above.
The joke is that the dice are loaded in favour of the Government.
The DfT are still calling the shots in terms of what needs to be done and how much there is to spend - but they are no longer accepting responsibility if the money doesn't cover the wishlist. That would be Highways England's fault for not managing their business properly. The DfT can claim they have agreed a plan to reduce casualties on the English trunk road network to zero by 2020, but if it doesn't happen (and it's not really likely to) it's not their fault, it's because the company contracted to achieve it failed.
In fact, because Highways England is not part of the Government, the DfT can even penalise them, via the ORR, for substandard work or failure to meet performance targets. Highways England are subject to a whole host of new expectations that weren't there before and over which they will be held to account. The benefit is supposedly that there will be better performance and more efficiency because the body providing road improvements has both carrots and sticks to work quicker, more cheaply and to higher standards.
The problem with autonomy
This new approach isn't without risk, though. In the late 1960s, in the midst of motorway mania, the Ministry of Transport tried to make roadbuilding more efficient and set up a number of new regional bodies. The Road Construction Units (or RCUs) each took charge of a streamlined planning and construction process for all trunk roads in their area. Political involvement reduced as the arm's length bodies - made up of engineers and planners - turned road construction into a powerful machine and their new faceless agencies worked to churn out one mile of motorway after another.
SERCU, ERCU, NWRCU and their siblings arose just as the tide turned on roadbuilding. As questions were asked about environmental issues and public involvement in the planning process, the Road Construction Units were badly equipped to deal with the protests. They were designed to build roads no matter what. It was their sole purpose. When it came to answering the public's concerns, they lacked democratic accountability, being separated from their parent ministry, and their processes were designed to push schemes through with minimal consultation and without needing much public support.
The relentless conveyor belt had no answer to the anti-roads lobby, which grew and grew in the face of a Government department that shrugged off responsibility and failed to engage with them. The way roads were built and their opponents were dealt with during the 1970s helped to grow the opposition to new roads that came to a head in the early 1990s with Twyford Down and the Newbury Bypass.
Highways England - an arm's-length body with a new mission to build and expand roads with a vigour we haven't seen in decades - appears to have more than a little RCU in its DNA. It is further separated from its parent, enjoys much greater autonomy and now Ministers aren't responsible for its decisions. Thanks to the relatively new method of planning and approving "major infrastructure" it can even appeal to have the wishes of locals overruled in favour of the national interest. It's a super-RCU with the powers of flight and X-ray vision.
The pitfall is that, if the DfT's memory is too short, Highways England could easily end up the subject of its own backlash, the public once again demanding to be heard against the disinterested road-building machine.
Speaking of conveyor belts, the name RIS1 implies that there will be a RIS2, and indeed there will. Road Improvement Strategy 2 is the second five-year period, running from 2020 to 2025, and in November 2015 it was announced that research was beginning to identify the work that should be included.
It already looks like it's going to be far bigger and more ambitious than RIS1, as the then-new Conservative Government stepped up its road infrastructure ambitions. Six studies were commissioned to recommend work on key problem areas:
- improving the A66 and A69 across the Pennines,
- an entirely new Manchester-Sheffield tunnel and surrounding road improvements,
- expanding the M60 north-west of Manchester,
- upgrading the A1 between the M25 and Peterborough, potentially as a motorway,
- an entirely new Oxford-Cambridge expressway,
- and upgrading the M25 south-west quadrant.
All those have the potential to see major new road schemes of a kind unknown for several decades and beyond the scope of anything even in RIS1.
British Rail, British Steel... British Roads
We'll look in detail at the schemes in RIS1 and RIS2 another time. For now, it's enough to say that we're clearly entering a new world for road infrastructure, in England at least - though the other home nations have all shown increasing enthusiasm to get spades in the ground over the last decade too. To finish, here is one other thought-provoking outcome of RIS1.
Highways England is now a wholly state-owned company that enjoys a complete monopoly on its line of work, which means that it is effectively now a nationalised industry. It has a similar status to the former British Steel or British Rail.
That means that, unlike the Highways Agency, at some future point it could theoretically be privatised, in whole or in part. That may seem unlikely or unfeasible , and there's no official suggestion that it's in the pipeline. But it's an interesting possibility that has never been there before, and it serves to emphasise just how much the situation has changed for roads and highway planning in the UK over the last few years.
"It's based on a system that seems to work well for the railways, where Network Rail is the government-owned company that implements Rail Investment Strategies over successive five-year control periods."
I can't work out if this is sarcasm or not...
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- Road Investment Strategy (RIS1) from Gov.uk (1 Dec 2014)
- Highways England Strategic Business Plan 2015 to 2020 from Gov.uk (9 December 2014)
- Road Investment Strategy: post-2020 from Gov.uk (15 November 2015)
- History of RCUs and changes to planning policy: Starkie, D. 1982. The Motorway Age. Oxford: Pergamon Press.