Skip to content
Infrastructure blog

Why strategic road investment in England should focus on maintenance, not expansion

31 August 2023

A parliamentary report sets out how investment in England’s roads can better support wider national goals and road user needs.

Why strategic road investment in England should focus on maintenance, not expansion
Transport is the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK. Image credit: Shutterstock

In 2015 a new Road Investment Strategy (RIS) regime was established to provide greater certainty about the development of England’s strategic road network (SRN).

However, road-building projects have continued to face delays, overspending and frequent legal challenges on environmental grounds.

A new Transport Committee report sets out what needs to change to fix those issues.

This is particularly important now as the third RIS, which will cover investments from 2025 to 2030, is in early development.

The ICE responded to the committee’s call for evidence and its findings align with our concerns.

Here are three key takeaways from the report:

1. Government should plan to reduce road use to reach net zero

The committee argues that the RIS regime is poorly aligned with the UK’s wider economic and environmental goals.

In particular, there’s a tension between road investment intended to achieve economic growth and the government’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2050.

The government argues the SRN is a key driver of growth and productivity. Investment cases are still largely based on their wider economic benefits.

But the committee says that the evidence is mixed on the economic benefits of strategic road building compared to investment in other modes of transport and connectivity.

At the same time, transport is the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK. Most of these come from road vehicles.

However, traffic on the SRN is forecast to increase and the government has no plan to reduce private car use.

Instead, it’s relying on a rapid switch to zero emission vehicles to decarbonise transport and meet net zero. But this may not happen fast enough.

To manage the risk, the committee wants the government to model future scenarios where demand for the SRN is managed.

It also calls for a credible strategy for powering the future zero emission vehicle fleet.

Responding to subnational priorities

The report also highlights the need for SRN planning to be informed by regional priorities.

It recommends developing a formalised process for National Highways to engage with England’s subnational transport bodies (STBs).

This would strengthen existing collaboration and help National Highways better understand potential risks for projects in England's regions.

2. Prioritise maintenance to meet user needs

Investment in the SRN has largely focused on ambitious new projects rather than maintaining existing roads.

But the network is ageing and requires significant renewal work.

Indeed, the evidence given to the committee suggests that most individual road users would prefer maintenance to be given greater priority.

Only the road haulage sector was enthusiastic about expansion.

The committee says the government should prioritise investment in the maintenance, renewal and resilience of existing assets over new projects in RIS3 and beyond.

More money could be made available by cancelling complex, costly enhancement projects.

This reprioritisation would ensure investment meets the needs of road users.

It would also align planning with another of the UK’s wider objectives – climate adaptation.

The resilience of key infrastructure systems to the impact of climate change needs to be a higher priority, as the ICE has argued in a recent policy paper.

3. Smaller, less ambitious portfolios can improve delivery

The RIS regime was intended to improve long-term planning, clarity and efficient delivery of road projects.

However, the committee says that overambition and under-delivery through RIS1 and RIS2 have led to more confusion and uncertainty.

In fairness, inflationary pressure has been much higher than could have been expected.

But other issues, like changes to smart motorways and environmental legal challenges, could’ve been better anticipated.

Future investment strategies need to be deliverable.

Expensive, complex enhancement projects may not be viable. Instead, there’s a ‘compelling case’ for each RIS portfolio to be smaller in scope.

The government should also put in place stronger measures to assess deliverability, manage risks and keep projects on budget.

The ICE’s view

The committee's report highlights long-standing challenges affecting both road investment and wider transport planning in England.

The difficulty of aligning transport decision-making with wider national objectives is at the core of this.

This is why the ICE has recommended government develop a national transport strategy for England.

It would provide an overarching framework against which to develop modal and regional transport plans, including future road investment strategies.

This would help change how investment decisions are made, from a focus on economics to giving more weight to the wider societal benefits of projects.

It would enable decision-makers to assess the trade-offs between different modes of transport.

And it would drive a rethink of how people and freight will travel to guide movement in more sustainable and equitable directions.

It’s therefore welcome that the Transport Committee has launched a further inquiry on the government’s strategic transport objectives.

This will look in more detail at how the outcomes of transport investment are prioritised and appraised.

In case you missed it

  • ICE director of policy Chris Richards outlines why the ICE is the go-to expert in infrastructure policy.
  • ICE policy fellows Steve Lee and Duncan Symonds examine how the US and other countries plan to make the most of the economic benefits from the net zero transition.

You can also sign up to ICE Informs to get a monthly digest of the latest policy activities from ICE, including calls for evidence to support our ongoing advice to policymakers.

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE