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Infrastructure blog

Why the NIC thinks England needs an interurban transport strategy

26 April 2023

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has advised that a more strategic approach is needed to make road travel sustainable.

Why the NIC thinks England needs an interurban transport strategy
Surface transport is the largest emitting sector in the UK – and 91% of those emissions come from road vehicles. Image credit: Shutterstock

The National Infrastructure Commission recently published an advice note to help the UK government prepare its third Road Investment Strategy (RIS3).

The note explores how to ensure future road enhancements help deliver the UK’s strategic goals, and what needs to happen to make road travel a sustainable choice.

It forms part of the NIC’s work towards the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2), expected this autumn.

Here are three key takeaways:

1. The government needs an interurban transport strategy

RIS3 will set out the government’s proposals for investment in England’s strategic road network from 2025 to 2030.

Enhancing road connectivity is one of the key means of supporting economic growth.

But any interventions also need to be aligned with the UK’s decarbonisation and environmental targets.

Balancing those objectives requires a more strategic vision against which to develop policy and link investment decisions to the desired outcomes.

The NIC says a systemic analysis of where road enhancements can most effectively support strategic goals should be the first step towards developing a longer-term interurban transport strategy.

The work underway on RIS3 is an opportunity to start that process.

A clear, long-term strategy would help guide investment across road and rail, including by:

  • reducing uncertainty around projects
  • enabling strategy to guide decisions about which projects to prioritise
  • maximising the benefits of major transport investments by aligning dependent and complementary developments with long-term strategic goals

The NIC will advise the government on the key issues that such a strategy should address for roads. It will also suggest tools to help analyse them from a strategic perspective.

2. Prioritise issues that hold back regional growth

A more strategic approach to road investment will help the government deliver its goal of reducing regional economic inequalities.

This should enable faster growth in low-productivity regions while maintaining the economic performance of high-productivity regions.

The NIC says standard transport appraisal is useful for assessing the impacts of specific projects.

But it doesn’t provide a framework for deciding where to look on the network in the first place to target improvements.

This requires a more systematic analysis of where the current network is underperforming.

This analysis should be supported by localised needs assessments from regional stakeholders. These can help identify new economic opportunities that would benefit from transport enhancement.

It should also be shaped by a clear understanding of the mechanisms by which national roads support growth.

The NIC argues making the flow of trade in services and goods between cities easier is the key – more so than other mechanisms such as long-distance commuting.

A more strategic approach will help prioritise improvements that unlock both gradual and transformational opportunities for economic growth.

3. RIS3 needs to ‘confront’ the sustainability challenge

In addition to its economic benefits, road is by far the main form of connectivity for most passenger and freight journeys in the UK.

In many places, it will remain the only viable form of connectivity.

Road investment is also relatively cheap compared to other modes of transport.

However, surface transport is also the largest emitting sector in the UK – and 91% of those emissions come from road vehicles.

Transport emissions have been relatively flat for three decades – and are now expected to remain so until 2027.

The UK urgently needs to tackle this sustainability challenge to maximise the economic and social benefits of road connectivity without compromising its environmental objectives.

Preparing for the future

The NIC says that ‘rapid and transformative action’ is needed to meet the UK’s emissions targets.

RIS3 must therefore set out appropriate measures based on robust, credible environmental commitments.

This includes allowing for the level of uncertainty in future carbon emissions outcomes.

Contingency measures need to be developed in case road vehicle electrification is slower or less effective than needed.

Widespread demand management measures to reduce carbon emissions cannot be ruled out.

The NIC says more work is needed on what these measures might look like, their impact and how to engage the public.

Maintenance and resilience should also be ‘a top priority’ for RIS3.

This is critical given the importance of the road network to the economy, the age of much of its infrastructure and the growing risks from climate change.

The ICE’s view:

The NIC’s advice note highlights how decisions about transport investment in England often seem disconnected from its long-term strategic objectives.

That is why the ICE recently launched a consultation on whether England needs a national transport strategy.

We have previously recommended the need for clearer alignment between levelling up and net zero for either to succeed.

An accessible, reliable, low carbon transport network is necessary to achieve both those goals.

But that won’t happen unless we strengthen decision-making to deliver better outcomes for the people and businesses that use the network.

The government has already announced a review of the national networks national policy statement to ensure major transport projects align with net zero.

But more work is needed to ensure the link between policy and investment decisions and accelerate progress towards the UK’s strategic goals.

Higher-than-expected inflation is already having an impact on the delivery of the current Road Investment Strategy.

So it’s important that RIS3 provides a strong framework for making the difficult choices about how to continue investing in the strategic road network.

In case you missed it

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE