Roads to the future: a fresh start for the local highways network?

With local roads conspicuous by their near-absence in the recent Election campaign debates, perhaps it’s time the profession took a stronger lead in shaping the future of our local networks argue Alan Taggart and Andy Warrington.

Works taking place on the A45. Can the profession help shape the future of our local roads network?
Works taking place on the A45. Can the profession help shape the future of our local roads network?

While major programmes for England’s strategic roads and our railways had clear attention in party manifestos, the 98% of roads in the care of local authorities were rather lower profile. There were some headline-friendly promises to fill potholes, which might be better than nothing but aren’t what’s really needed. There is a great danger that these vital assets will be taken for granted by the new Government.

Devolution legislation has been laid before Parliament; however, Government is committed to reducing the deficit while protecting high-profile services. Further cuts to local authority budgets seem inevitable. Within that, local road funding is likely to be squeezed even harder.

So the outlook isn’t great. And if we can’t expect the politicians to sort things out for us, who will?

What to do?

Late last year, ICE initiated a project to address the lack of strategic focus on the future of our local networks and raise the issue for political debate. To ensure the sector spoke with one voice we teamed-up with CIHT.

Our intention - on the basis that “we can’t go on like this” - was to initiate a conversation about far-reaching change in management of local networks. We looked at models used in other public service and infrastructure sectors. We also looked at increasing investment through the current system, such as PFI and the “invest-to-save” approach through local authority borrowing.

We invited local authority directors, private sector experts and transport institutions to give us their thoughts, chaired by the indomitable Steve Kent. Unsurprisingly, this group laid bare some important home truths:

  • The current trajectory isn’t sustainable. DfT’s capital settlement may be reasonable but revenue for maintenance from DCLG is increasingly critical
  • There remains scope for continuing efficiency improvements. But while we’re fully behind the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme it’s unlikely to be enough
  • There are too many local roads authorities - but little appetite to reduce numbers
  • Assumptions about what a local roads “service” looks like could be re-considered. Are existing legislative and regulatory requirements still appropriate? Are we trying to deliver too much in too many places?
  • The network has to be better understood in terms of its economic contribution and importance.
  • More local leadership and engagement with Highways England would be welcome.

The group’s feedback on the specific models we put up for consideration was mixed. “Invest-to-save” is viewed more positively than PFI nowadays. Greater use of deeper alliances was favoured as a sensible incremental move. Greater Manchester was cited as leading the way here.

Regulated asset base and institutional investment approaches were interesting but the lack of an income stream from local roads presents a barrier. In this regard, hypothecation may come back onto the agenda, although it remains a difficult and controversial area.

What now?

Our findings to date are probably no surprise to many. It’s clear that while the problem may be widely understood there’s no consensus on the solutions. It may be that there’s no single answer, and that different areas may pursue different paths at different paces. But solutions are surely needed and we’ll keep working at finding them.

Meantime, it’s not just local highways authorities who’ll be looking for ways forward. We think that there’s an opportunity to influence the new Government as it gets down to some serious thinking about the reality of ensuring our publicly-owned infrastructure is maintained to standard that will support growth on a tightening budget.