Highways England has invited local partners to submit bids for its £100m growth and housing cash pot, used to match-fund infrastructure to enable new developments.
The fund is open to local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and the development community. There will be no capital outlay this year, giving time for developers to prepare bids as well as Highways England to develop a mechanism for assessing growth plans.
From 2016, Highways England plan to release about £20m a year through to 2021.
The news comes as local authorities appear to be struggling with securing strategic infrastructure funding to support local growth, with senior councils members and officials raising serious concerns over the nature of the system.
The new Highways England fund was first announced as part of the Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) 2015-16 to 2019-20, but runs over into 2021. The document states the cash would provide enough ‘leverage and flexibility’ for Highways England to engage positively in ‘progressing schemes to unlock strategic growth’.
‘It is to supplement – not substitute – developer contributions and other existing sources of funding,’ the RIS warns.
Schemes would need to be shovel-ready, having passed the planning stages, and have a quick delivery time. Rules on state aid also mean the government-owned company is looking for bids with multiple developers, with collaboration between local authorities also seen as a potential benefit.
The fund would normally only be applicable to investment on the strategic road network that unlocks major housing developments of more than 5,000 new homes or produces key economic growth.
However Nigel Edwards, divisional director of strategic planning at Highways England, told Transport Network that while schemes should demonstrate a benefit to the strategic road network they do not have to take place on it.
Mr Edwards stressed that bidders would need to provide substantial match funding of 50%, or more in some cases.
He also revealed that LEPs would be particularly likely to benefit from the cash pot stating: ‘The Government is standing behind the LEPs in particular. We find them a good way of working. We delivered our pinch point project working with LEPs, which included 319 schemes. That was a good model to look at.’
He went on to say that through developing an economic plan around the fund and the company’s route-based strategies, Highways England would have a solid national framework for strategic economic growth.
‘We are taking steps to develop our economic growth plan to understand where growth is expected where the pressure points are and have a discussion on where growth can be accommodated. If we plan using a heat map to show where pressure points are we can start to move together with investment and make more intelligent decisions about use of land and how we can facilitate that growth,' he said.
‘This opportunity over the next five years is a springboard for the future. When we develop the criteria we will know the amount needed and the latent demand. If we can make this a success that gives a strong lever to say this works, this is how we made it work, so that in the next RIS there is an encouragement to extend the fund.’
Mr Edwards revealed that discussions were taking place regarding the next RIS, with potentially long-term road strategies ready within a year.
In terms of local difficulties over developments and road building, Mr Edwards stressed Highways England is ‘not there to mediate between people who are having problems with planning’.
However he added: 'If there is local pressure to deliver something and it’s not clear what infrastructure is needed to make sure that development is a success I would always recommend early engagement with Highways England.
‘If it has relevance to the strategic road network then come to us early on, talk to us about the proposal that you are wrestling with so we can help and make something work.’