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Infrastructure blog

Road Investment Strategy – five years on

18 December 2019

As the decade draws to a close, President’s Future Leader Louise Hetherington looks back at the Government’s Road Investment Strategy introduced in 2014.

Road Investment Strategy – five years on
A major success is the A14, which recently opened its first section, not only on budget, but a year ahead of schedule. Image credit: Shutterstock

RIS1. Another abbreviation in an industry full of three letter acronyms, shortening everything from project names through to technical terms and even industrial strategies. And RIS1 is one of the latter, standing for “Road Investment Strategy”. Published in 2014 by UK Government, the strategy outlined a long-term programme for major roads; a different approach to prior short-term planning. And as the end of the 2015/16 to 2019/20 road period draws to a close, the ICE in association with a group of contractors and consultants, reviewed the successes and shortfalls of the strategy. Hosted by ICE President, Paul Sheffield, the roundtable event saw a lively discussion with feedback being provided to help shape future investment in the strategic road network (SRN). As a President’s Future Leader, I was able to attend this roundtable and this blog summarises the outcomes from the discussions.

Why was RIS1 published and what did it focus on?

RIS1 outlined how the Government could revolutionise the SRN over the coming decades, focussing on the 5 C’s; certainty, connectivity, capacity, condition and construction. The long-term nature of the strategy strived to enable certainty in the funding streams to facilitate delivery and drive efficiencies. By improving major trunk roads such as the A19 and A303, the strategy aimed to transform connectivity. With Smart Motorways and other schemes, planned capacity was proposed to increase with an additional 1300 miles of lanes whilst condition was also high on the agenda to ensure major roads in England are fit for purpose. And finally, construction. The key element for ICE stakeholders and within RIS1, £5 billion was set aside 50 schemes to enable construction to connect new developments.

What were the successes of the strategy?

Something I was unaware of prior to joining this discussion was that this strategy led to the change from the Highways Agency to Highways England. The move further from Government enabled more connectivity with regulatory bodies and allowed the entity to become more customer focussed. Ultimately, this change was a success, with Highways England growing as a corporation. Other successes noted by those around the table include the benefit of secured funding. The certainty that the funds would be available has allowed Highways England to grow and has prevented the stop-start style of road construction from happening. Furthermore, the certainty of the long-term strategy has enabled companies right across the supply chain to plan better, with a clear pipeline for incoming works.

Whilst there was still flexibility in the delivery of RIS1 projects, the proposed projects have gone ahead, and this is a significant step forward for contractors and consultancies alike. Additionally, the designated funds have allowed the industry to collaborate, innovate and ultimately improve processes. A major success is the A14, which recently opened its first section, not only on budget, but a year ahead of schedule. This is all due to the collaboration and innovation of the teams involved. Further innovations include working towards better air quality and RIS1 is applauded for what it has done for driving digital within road development.

What have we learnt through the process?

However, whilst there have been many successes, there have also been shortfalls which can help shape future road investment.

In 2017, the National Audit Office published a report outlining whether Highways England and DfT really could deliver on value for money. This was a key focus of part of the discussion as attendees debated what “value for money” really meant, and highlighted how striving for value only in an economic sense often meant settling on the cheapest solution, thus not ensuring improved efficiency and squeezing profit margins. Work needs to be done in the procurement of the works to ensure true value for money can be achieved, including up front spending to ensure alliances are formed and innovations are effectively leveraged. This will ultimately help drive efficiency in the industry.

Finally, a large part of the debate focussed on the disconnect between those setting the budget and the people delivering the projects. A fundamental change for future strategies should see discussions occurring prior to budgets being set, to ensure the numbers are feasible, innovation can be supported, and efficiencies discovered.

What’s next?

So, where does this leave those developing next road investment strategy (RIS2)? Well it was widely agreed the time commitment to develop RIS1 introduced some risk, however largely it was accepted that the strategy has been a success. It was noted that the short time span did result in increased flexibility which may not be possible in RIS2 due to the more in-depth planning which has occurred, however, this is not currently perceived as a problem as the planning should counterbalance some of the need for flexibility.

Overall RIS1 provided a new direction for long-term investment in the SRN, with a number of successes to repeat for RIS2 and a series of lessons to be learnt in parallel.

  • Louise Hetherington, ICE president's future leader 2019-2020 & structural engineer, Atkins