The next five years

Published on 07 April 2020

The next Road Investment Strategy has just been published, covering the period from 2020 to 2025 and promising £27.4bn of funding for the trunk road network - a level of investment not seen in decades. What's included, and what can we expect?

You'll have to forgive us for talking exclusively about England, because the Road Investment Strategies (RIS) are five-year periods in which Highways England are expected to complete a list of projects and other objectives handed to them by the Department for Transport. They don't apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, who set their own priorities. We explained the concept of the Road Investment Strategies in a 2017 blog post.

But the scale of the investment, and the volume of work expected in the next five years, is a whole order of magnitude beyond anything the UK has seen in many years, and bears a closer look.

Before we get in to it, it's possibly worth taking a moment to ask why this level of investment is coming along, and why now. One reason is that traffic levels on the trunk road network in England are climbing, and they're climbing at a far quicker rate than on other types of road. Another is that the network has sufferent underinvestment for several decades and has a backlog of maintenace work and improvement schemes that there is now the political will to address. A third reason is as a stimulus to economic growth.

Earthmoving on the A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon scheme. RIS2 promises a lot more of this. Click to enlarge
Earthmoving on the A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon scheme. RIS2 promises a lot more of this. Click to enlarge

The investment strategy is also tied up with all sorts of other Government policies, from the aim to build 300,000 new homes - all of which will generate new or changed journey patterns - to the aims for fewer people to be affected by road noise, for levels of pollution generated by road vehicles to fall steeply in the coming years, and for deaths and injuries on the roads to be reduced as close as possible to zero.

What's in and what's on

The main attraction in the RIS2 policy document is the list of road schemes that will be funded in this period, and which will start work by 2025 at the latest. Many will be completed before then. There are 55 new schemes announced as part of RIS2, though few are a big surprise, and most have been in planning or otherwise foreshadowed in some form over the last few years.

Included in those 55 are a number of Smart Motorway projects that have been separated out from the others: that's because of the Smart Motorway "stocktake" recently conducted by the Government. (We'll discuss it, and what it means for the motorway network, in another blog post soon.) The recommendations of the stocktake are going to mean changes for future Smart Motorway schemes and modifications to many that are already open. That's going to take time and money, and the strategy seems to be to ringfence all the Smart Motorway investment in RIS2 and then to reallocate it so that the stocktake's recommendations can be delivered. Highways England will then see which new schemes can still be taken forward in this RIS with the remaining funds. There's going to be another announcement later this year to set out the plan, so the inclusion of a Smart Motorway project here is not a guarantee.

Other than that caveat, the experience of RIS1 shows that while the list might be amended over the next five years, with some schemes delayed or replaced if there are difficulties in the planning process, we can expect the vast majority of these to go ahead as planned now that they are in the RIS.

Region Scheme Status
The North A1 Morpeth-Ellingham dualling Committed
A19 Down Hill Lane junction Committed
A1 Birtley-Coal House widening Committed
A66 Northern Trans-Pennine improvements Committed
M6 South Lancaster J33a Committed
A585 Windy Harbour-Skippool Committed
M60 J18 Simister Island Committed
A61 Westwood Roundabout Committed
A5036 Princess Way Committed
A628 Mottram Moor Link and A57 Link Committed
M6 J19 improvement Committed
M62 J20-25 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
M6 J21a-26 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
M56 J6-8 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
The Midlands A46 Newark Bypass dualling Committed
A38 Derby Junctions Committed
M54-M6 Link Road Committed
A5 Dodwells-Longshoot Committed
M42 J6 improvement Committed
A46 Coventry Junctions Committed
M40/M42 interchange Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
The East A47 North Tuddenham-Easton dualling Committed
A47 Blofeld-North Burlingham dualling Committed
A47 Great Yarmouth Junctions Committed
A47 Thickthorn Junction Committed
A47 Guyhirn Junction Committed
A47 Wansford-Sutton dualling Committed
A428 Black Cat-Caxton Gibbet dualling Committed
A5 Towcester Relief Road Committed
A120 Tendring/Colchester Garden Community Committed
A12 Colchester/Braintree Garden Community Committed
A12 Chelmsford to A120 widening Committed
M11 new J7a Committed
M25 J25 improvement Committed
M25 J28 improvement Committed
Lower Thames Crossing Committed
A1(M) J6-8 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
The South and West M5 J10 and Link Road Committed
A417 Air Balloon dualling Committed
A2 Bean and Ebbsfleet Committed
A249 Swale Transport Infrastructure Committed
M2 J5 improvement Committed
M25 J10 improvement Committed
A303 Amesbury-Berwick Down [Stonehenge Tunnel] Committed
M3 J9 improvement Committed
A303 Sparkford-Ilchester improvement Committed
A358 Taunton-Southfields dualling Committed
M27 J8 improvement Committed
A31 Ringwood widening Committed
A27 East of Lewes Package Committed
A27 Arundel Bypass Committed
A27 Worthing and Lancing Improvement Committed
A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross Committed
M25 J10-16 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake
M3 J9-14 Smart Motorway Subject to stocktake

As smart as ever

There's been a lot of bad press for Smart Motorways in recent months, essentially forcing the Department for Transport into a reassessment (or "stocktake") of the whole concept, so it might be surprising that Smart Motorways continue to feature in RIS2. But this list of projects has been in planning for half a decade, and there's no realistic alternative to Smart Motorways where extra capacity is needed on congested motorways (or, perhaps more accurately, no appetite within government to find a realistic alternative). So despite their many detractors, they will continue to proliferate.

The M25 in Kent, now a Smart Motorway: this newly upgraded road is already being upgraded to add more safety features following the "stocktake". Click to enlarge
The M25 in Kent, now a Smart Motorway: this newly upgraded road is already being upgraded to add more safety features following the "stocktake". Click to enlarge

What's noticeable, though, is that there are just seven Smart Motorway schemes in RIS2. Two others have been delayed to RIS3, so they won't happen until after 2025 - but RIS1 contained more than 20 Smart Motorway projects. Not all of those happened: some were deferred and appear in the RIS2 list above, with work yet to start. But there's far fewer starting in the next five years than in the last. 

Perhaps the DfT's enthusiasm for Smart Motorways is cooling off a little, and if it is, there's another feature of the policy that points the same way. RIS2 includes a list of schemes that are expected to happen in RIS3, but what's noticeable is that none of them are Smart Motorways. There's a few, though, that look for all the world like long-standing Smart Motorway plans with new names. Take a look:

  • M1 Junctions 35A-39 Sheffield to Wakefield extra capacity
  • M6 Junctions 19-21A
  • M1 North Leicestershire extra capacity

"Extra capacity" is what you get from either widening or a Smart Motorway project, and if it's neither of those... then what is it? The M6 scheme doesn't claim to be anything at all. Possibly the DfT themselves don't yet know, but projects beyond 2025 are presumably at an early enough stage in the design process that they aren't tied in to the current Smart Motorway standard.

Not just new roads and upgrades

That headline figure of £27.4bn is the whole of Highways England's budget between 2020 and 2025, so of course it doesn't mean that there will be £27bn of road improvements in the coming years. It also has to cover day-to-day operations and maintenance of the existing network. In the last five years, Highways England have taken stock of a motorway network largely built half a century ago and have determined that the maintenance requirements are significant.

Emergency repair work on the A52 Clifton Bridge, the sort of thing HE hope to avoid in future. Click to enlarge
Emergency repair work on the A52 Clifton Bridge, the sort of thing HE hope to avoid in future. Click to enlarge

We are, therefore, entering a period of proactive maintenance and asset renewal that has not been seen in a long time, as Highways England find themselves in the enviable position of having the money to look after things properly. In RIS2, then, formidable sums of money are now about to be spent on repair and renewal work:

  • £1.5bn for renewal or major maintenance work on 190 life-expired or compromised structures
  • £450m to renew 1,000 miles of safety barrier
  • £400m to begin the process of eliminating all concrete road surfaces from the trunk road network
  • £1.4bn for resurfacing existing roads
  • £600m for maintenance of drains, earthworks, communications systems and lighting

That totals almost £4.5bn of spending on maintenance work alone.

Missing in action

A five-year Road Period does not stand in isolation. In RIS1, 2015-2020, a lot of research was conducted that helped inform the contents of RIS2. Over the next five years a similar process will happen as RIS3 takes shape. So, back in 2015, RIS1 was already quite clear about a long list of schemes that were in development so that they could be included in RIS2 - but not all of them made it.

We've been through RIS1 and RIS2 with a fine tooth comb, and eleven schemes promised for RIS2 - many of them quite big ones - won't go ahead. This is the list of schemes that were promised for RIS2 back in 2015, but which are not in RIS2 now that it's been published.

Region Scheme Outcome
Yorkshire and the North East A64 Hopgrove Improvement Delayed to RIS3
M1/M62 Lofthouse Junction Delayed to RIS3
A1 Redhouse-Darrington Delayed to RIS3
M1 J35a-39 Smart Motorway Delayed to RIS3
A1 Doncaster Bypass Combined with A1 Redhouse-Darrington
Delayed to RIS3
Midlands M1 J19-23a Smart Motorway Renamed "M1 North Leicestershire extra capacity"
Delayed to RIS3
Birmingham Box Phase 4 Dropped
A45 Thrapston-Stanwick expressway Dropped
East of England A12 Colchester Bypass widening Dropped
A12 widening, M25-Chelmsford Dropped
London and the South East A3 widening, Guildford-A31 Dropped

Added to the list above will be all sorts of other ideas that were quietly considered for RIS2 but are now on the list for RIS3. There's all sorts of reasons why they might be delayed, and all sorts of reasons why some schemes might dropped altogether - but in RIS2 there are two reasons, beyond all others, that the list of schemes is shorter than for RIS1, and that so many big projects expected for the coming five years have been pushed back over the horizon.

Artist's impression of the proposed A303 Stonehenge Tunnel, now fully funded under RIS2. Click to enlarge
Artist's impression of the proposed A303 Stonehenge Tunnel, now fully funded under RIS2. Click to enlarge

Up until a few months ago, you see, it was still being claimed that the Stonehenge Tunnel, planned for the A303, and the Lower Thames Crossing, a new tunnel between Kent and Essex, were special projects for which Treasury funding was yet to be announced. It's now clear that Treasury funding isn't forthcoming and (in a development that perhaps shouldn't be surprising) those two enormous projects must be accommodated within the admittedly commodious budget for RIS2.

Those two projects, definitively included on the list for RIS2, are now safe and can proceed. But between them they will demand about £7bn of funding. Two schemes, then, will claim almost a third of the available money for the next five years. No wonder some other things are going by the wayside.

An ever changing picture

RIS2 might be planned out in detail, but the next five years will see unexpected problems and shifting priorities as well as new road openings. We might not be tracking road schemes any more, but we will be keeping on top of things here on the blog, as the carefully sketched ideas in the RIS2 policy document are translated into the real world.

If it all goes to plan, we'll see you in the Stonehenge Tunnel in 2025.


John McAdam 8 April 2020

A comprehensive review of the plans, good work.

It does however somewhat overlook the large elephant that's recently entered the room which appears intent to stick around for a while, namely SARS-CoV-2.

How the presence of said elephant will influence wider matters such as road policy is of course yet to be determined.

Yes, it's going to affect everything in some way, but the effects aren't yet predictable, certainly not at the level of detail where we can say what might happen to the schemes in RIS2. In writing this I assumed that, for now, it's enough to look at what is there, because that's the current policy, and if things change we'll come back and look again.

It would stick around to at most next year - after which most of everything will return back to full speed, if not higher.

In the meantime, the "emptiness" could be used to do project works. A lot of different projects that are well under way when the calamity strikes are actually being expedited since there's no need to work only at night or only when services are closed (since now most of everything is closed anyway).

Although it remains to be seen if any of the projects listed here could start soon enough for the closures to have any positive impacts.

Given the amount of national debt we will be in (I’ve seen statements saying that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be paying for this) when all this finishes, I can see a scenario where ALL new road building not actually in progress will be cancelled for at least 5 to 10 years and may be longer (as should HS2 by the way).

Gryph 9 April 2020

An interesting list - of course we're getting to the stage where the network *needs* improving. You can only delay it for so long, after all.

Oliver 10 April 2020

I've heard that york wants the hopgrove improvements to be brought forward.

Derek 28 April 2020

All a bit unlikely now I would think, given the upcoming recession caused by the corona virus.

Dave G 14 May 2020

There are different standards of smart motorways ,eg Distance between refuges, vehicle detection systems. There is nothing about this and whether the existing smart motorways will be upgraded

All of that detail fell under the "Smart Motorways Stocktake", which was published earlier this year as a separate piece of work to the RIS2 announcement. We've had a blog post about it in planning for a while but what with one thing and another it hasn't happened yet! You can read the original document from the DfT here.

dave mccreadie 10 June 2020

have been watching out over the past few years for the RIS1 survey work completion updates for the proposed A1 (M18 to M62) upgrade finally sceduled for inclusion in RIS2. probably one of the most important and wide reaching improvements the North needs going forward. With the amount of housing being built and proposed in north east leeds, the vast national distribution hub region of doncaster /wakefield, the M1(long way round) will just get busier and busier. UK Gov had to weigh up which major/complex scheme to drop to accomodate more southern projects with least backlash and found the perfect one. funny thing is Transport for the north (leeds /manchester) didnt prioritise it as didnt fit their agglomeration priorities. made it easy for Uk gov. Now people are realising what this actually means for communities along the M1 from chesterfield all the way up to garforth and colton.Transport for the north needs to speak for the north not just for Manc /Leeds.

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Picture credits

  • Photograph of construction work on the A14 is taken from an original by Highways England.
  • Photograph of engineers climbing to access hatch is taken from an original released by Highways England.
  • Artist's impression of Stonehenge Tunnel released under the Open Government Licence.

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