As an engineer many of the frustrations I observe from other road users can be mapped back to the inequality and complexity of how our network is funded. Whilst Smart Motorways can be a delight to drive through due to the controlled traffic flow that modern technology has introduced the disparity between our trunk roads and localized side road network becomes ever more visible.
Eliminating inconsistencies in the long-term funding of roads of regional importance is one of the ways the government is attempting to address this problem and earlier this year the Department for Transport released its proposals for a new Major Road Network in England. These aim to improve the standard of roads not currently funded through the Government’s Road Investment Strategy by creating a new ‘tier’ to sit between the strategic and local networks.
As highlighted in ACE’s response, there is always room for improvement, and there is still a long way for our industry before we see a holistic, integrated network that provides smoother links for road users. Furthermore, while the plan rightly harnesses the expertise of regional knowledge through bodies such as Transport for the North, this is not backed up by a consistent and coordinated approach across the country. Without this we run the risk of introducing regional variations in road standard, resulting in a poorer and potentially unsafe experience for road users.
Developing funding proposals through sub-national transport bodies also has the potential to disadvantage areas of the country where these arrangements do not currently exist. The Department for Transport’s current proposal is to develop a regional evidence base through informal groups made up of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. This is welcomed but supported by a warning that these forums must aspire to achieve the same level of rigour as their centrally funded sub-national transport bodies.
Alternatively, additional funding that will enable these regions to formally coordinate themselves through joint boards with a clear mandate – and to pay for the technical support required to develop a sound evidence base. Scotland’s Regional Transport Partnerships is a model that has been used to good effect elsewhere in the UK.
Finally, a Major Road Network investment must not be seen as a mere intervention. The Government’s involvement in roads of regional importance cannot start when there is a dire need of repair nor stop when an enhancement or renewals project has been delivered. Instead, there must be a more holistic approach to how we fund and manage the network.
Those who operate and maintain networks have a critical role to play in this, and organisations such as Highways England and Transport for London must leverage their growing expertise in supply chain collaboration in order to build roads more efficiently, while managing the day-to-day operations of the road network more effectively.
Dave Beddell is European Highways Managing Director at AECOM and chair of ACE’s Roads group.