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Ahead of ICE Roads 2016 conference on 20 April, our transport expert Jonathan Spruce explores the future of the roads sector – innovation, investment and its role in economic growth
If I were to mention the town of Glastonbury to most people, their immediate thought would most likely be of festivals and mud. But how many people also know that log roads have been found near the town, dating from around the year 4000BC? (I confess I didn’t either, until researching this blog).
This fact goes to emphasise just how much roads have been part of human life, more so than any other form of transport other than our own two feet. Yet in recent years, we've seen a decline in maintenance and an increase in the number of roads needing urgent attention. Pressure on local authority budgets is likely to exacerbate the problem.
Conversely, we are also about to enter a period of relative prosperity for new and improved roads (excuse the reference). To tackle current issues, the UK Government has committed to a record £6 billion capital funding until 2021, and Vehicle Excise Duty will be directed towards a new Roads Fund from 2020. Here we will be able to see a direct link between the tax we pay to drive and the quality and standard of the infrastructure we use.
Road travel is, and will remain, the preferred means of travel for the majority of people, and so the role of roads in supporting economic growth and future housing and development cannot be underestimated nor left as an afterthought. Investment in roads has followed a cycle akin to "boom and bust" in the last 20 years, but still road traffic continues to grow.
Whilst our attention in the UK is often on promoting new rail infrastructure to prepare us for the next century – let alone this one – it is the roads sector where technological change and innovation can make significant strides towards a sustainable transport strategy. Electric vehicles, driverless cars, and the ability to develop "smart" infrastructure is way ahead of the equivalent thinking on the railways. It is also an area where the UK is at the forefront.
So, there has never been a better time for the industry to come together and debate the right approach to deliver a better network of smarter roads, understand how the money will be invested and help create a sustainable transport network which includes the right level of investment in roads. This is the reasoning behind ICE's forthcoming roads conference.
The conference programme aims to bring together all the major stakeholders in the sector allowing in-depth analysis of performance, investment priorities, future demand and technological change. Attendees will gain understanding of the latest direction of the sector and learn about the most efficient ways to integrate new design technologies that can bring increased capacity, improved network lifespan and minimised maintenance costs.
As Chair of the ICE's national Transport Expert Panel, I'm also looking forward to understanding the role of roads in the emerging devolution landscape across the UK, especially as roads often act as the arteries that connect the various devolved areas.
I look forward to welcoming you to the conference – it may not be too much like Glastonbury, but at least there'll be less mud.
ICE Roads 2016 takes place at One Great George St, Westminster on 20 April 2016, and features presentations from:
Visit our conference homepage for the full programme and details of how to book.