£1bn for better local roads

Published on 05 July 2017

Front page news in today's edition of The Times is the headline "£1bn roads revolution launched". Where is that money coming from - and why is central Government looking to spend such big sums on local roads?

The story (available here behind the Times paywall, illustrated by a picture of the M4 in Wales which is blissfully irrelevant to a story about local roads in England, or here at The Guardian) is that the Department for Transport are announcing a new Transport Investment Strategy that sets out how they decide to fund and prioritise transport schemes. The biggest change is a fund of £1bn a year that will be made available for improvements to A-roads managed by local authorities.

Where does the money come from?

The money is apparently being ringfenced from the £6bn raised annually from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), commonly known as road tax. This tax was originally instituted in the early 20th century to pour money into the Road Fund which was used exclusively to pave and improve roads, but it was soon being raided for other purposes. In 1931, the financial crisis saw the end to ringfenced funding for roads, and since then it has simply been another form of general taxation. It's a common misconception that road tax is used to pay for roads - it hasn't done so within most people's lifetime, and certainly hasn't done so since anyone alive today started driving.

From the 2020-21 financial year, VED will again be ringfenced to pay for roads, and by that time it's expected that it will raise more than £6bn a year. Initially the whole of that sum was going to go to Highways England for the trunk road network, but now £1bn every year will be put aside for local authorities who will be able to bid for funding.

That means that now - for the first time in 86 years - money raised from motorists is being used to directly fund road improvements. If any further proof were needed that we are gradually moving into an era of large scale road construction and improvement, beyond the sums of money already committed for trunk roads, the closing gaps in Scotland's motorway network and the big changes brought by RIS1 a couple of years ago, this is it.

What will it be spent on?

The new money is intended to be used for fixing and upgrading important local and regional roads that have fallen into disrepair or suffer from traffic problems. But it will also fund road construction. The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has described it as a "bypass fund".

"If you look at where there are problems on the A-road network, it is the areas where a fairly significant regional route passes through a small town. The lorries congeal in the centre, there's congestion, and...people for years have been saying 'I want a bypass', so we are making money available for that."

Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport

The new funding could be music to the ears of towns and villages all over England that suffer from heavy traffic passing through and who have been told by their local authority that there's no money for a bypass.

Funding will be prioritised for work that promotes economic growth or - interestingly - contribute to a more geographically balanced economy. That suggests that the fund will favour work on more depressed and remote areas, and probably won't fund much work in London or the South East.

If Lincolnshire County Council are on the ball, they will get themselves straight to the front of the queue with a bid for funding the long-demanded Boston Bypass. Residents of Boston have for years mounted one of the most remarkably vociferous and inventive campaigns to have their town bypassed, so far to no avail, even going as far as forming a political party that controlled the borough council for a number of years. Perhaps they will now be among the towns that will benefit from Grayling's bypass fund.

Why is it needed?

There are two factors at work here. The first is that local authorities simply don't have the resources to maintain their roads to the same standards as Highways England, let alone improve them. The money available to the trunk road network is vastly greater, per mile, than anything a local council could contemplate spending.

The second is that in the last 20 years local authorities have been required to manage busy main roads that had previously been trunk roads, in an attempt to reduce the size of the trunk road network and save money. The New Deal for Trunk Roads started a massive programme of de-trunking that went on for years in the early 2000s. This diagram gives an idea of the roads that were handed to local councils in the early 2000s.

The present trunk road network (red) with some of the roads detrunked in the early 2000s (black). Click to enlarge
The present trunk road network (red) with some of the roads detrunked in the early 2000s (black). Click to enlarge

The roads marked in black on the map above are some of those detrunked under the New Deal for Trunk Roads, and which are now the responsibility of local authorities. Depending on how far back in time you go, there were even more than this at one time.

In some places, Highways England still look after the majority of main roads, but in other areas of the country the trunk road network has receded to a point where it's effectively abandoned whole regions. Lincolnshire and Shropshire fared particularly badly, and cities like York, Leicester and Oxford now have trunk roads only in some directions where once they were a hub.

All those former trunk roads are still busy - busier, in fact, than they were twenty years ago - but none have benefitted from the maintenance and improvement work the Highways Agency carried out to its network after they were demoted, and none will see any improvement from RIS1 in future. This new pot of money is supposed to help redress that imbalance and bring the busiest local authority roads up to scratch.

The A650 Bingley Relief Road, opened as a trunk road in 2003 but now managed by a local authority
The A650 Bingley Relief Road, opened as a trunk road in 2003 but now managed by a local authority

However, it's not all about making journeys faster and existing roads better. There's a good chance that Grayling's new bypasses will often be characterised by frequent access points and infill development, because the terms of the plan push for them to be used as a catalyst for new edge-of-town development and housing.

"The transport investment strategy sets out a blueprint for how we can harness the power of transport investment to drive balanced economic growth, unlock new housing projects and support the government’s modern industrial strategy."

Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport

The Major Road Network is here

There's a mention in some press reports that this will see the creation of a "Major Road Network" (MRN) - complementing the official name for trunk roads in England which is the "Strategic Road Network" (SRN) - and that a consultation will be launched later this year.

That phrase ought to sound familiar. It's precisely what was proposed late last year in a report published by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund study called A Major Road Network for England. The substance of the report is that the 4,200 mile SRN does not form a "coherent network of major roads with good connectivity and geographical coverage", and that a further 3,800 miles of local authority roads provide such an important contribution economically and geographically that they should be recognised and funded to a similar degree. Those roads, added to the SRN, will form the MRN. The whole idea is essentially a scathing criticism of the mass detrunking of the early 2000s.

The existing trunk network (blue) with the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund's proposed MRN superimposed (green). The similarity with the map of detrunked roads above is striking. Click to enlarge
The existing trunk network (blue) with the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund's proposed MRN superimposed (green). The similarity with the map of detrunked roads above is striking. Click to enlarge

The map above shows the existing trunk network, just like the first map, but this time the green lines mark the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund's suggested MRN. The similarity between the major roads they thought needed greater investment and improvement, and the roads detrunked in the last 20 years, is remarkable.

The report can be summarised quite simply. It says the existing 4,200 mile trunk road network in England fails to form a "coherent network of major roads with good connectivity and geographical coverage". Another 3,800 miles of local authority A-roads need to be added to make a truly useful network that covers the whole country. The difference in funding between the trunk roads and the non-trunk roads is far too wide and the non-trunk major roads need to catch up.

It proposes these steps to achieve that.

  • The divide between Highways England and local authority roads should not be changed, in order to avoid the upheaval of a reorganisation. Instead HE and local councils should work more closely together.
  • The planned ringfencing of VED from 2020 presents an opportunity to find a funding stream for non-trunk major roads. Some of it should be diverted to local authorities for this purpose.
  • Planning and management of local authority roads should be improved, focussing on making them fit for the user (with reliable and fast journey times), fit for communities and fit for the environment.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that the recommendations of this report are effectively the policy that's been announced today, with the only missing part being the shape of the actual Major Road Network. That will presumably appear once the consultation starts and you can be fairly sure the initial proposal will look very much like the one above taken from the report.

The money won't arrive until 2020, of course, so some of this is academic for another three years, but it will eventually see non-trunk roads given greater funding and brought up to a higher standard, and set against the current situation - with billions allocated to the trunk network while local councils may be struggling to patch up potholes in main roads - it looks like a fairer settlement. What it means for RIS2 and Highways England's trunk road programme remains to be seen.

In the immediate future, however, we may see some faster changes as the new ways of selecting and progressing road schemes come into force. The Department will now prioritise reliability, economic growth, housing, and ("where appropriate") smaller schemes that will deliver results more quickly. We'll be watching closely to see what gets spent and where as a result.

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Picture credits

  • Map of England based on data from OpenStreetMap.
  • Photograph of Highways Agency sign at the Bingley Relief Road by Ant Butterfield and used with permission.
  • Map of Rees Jeffreys Road Fund proposed Major Road Network extracted from "A Major Road Network for England".

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Published5 July 2017

Last updated5 July 2017