Prime minister David Cameron announced plans this week to use private firms to expand and maintain the motorway and trunk-road network. This may well have come as a surprise to many in the sector, who thought it was happening already.
The proposals – based on the privatisation of the mains water network – may be new in terms of the exact funding and leasing model, but bear a strong resemblance to much existing work on the ground.
Take EnterpriseMouchel’s Area 3 contract with the Highways Agency (HA). Under the arrangement, the company operates and manages 1,242km of roads, including motorways and trunk roads such as the M27, M3, M4, A3, and A303.
It is responsible for all the network maintenance and delivery of schemes up to £500,000, and the management of improvement schemes up to £5 million. The company’s responsibility could be expanded, of course. But, in reality, by how much?
Mr Cameron also stressed there were no plans to introduce tolls on the existing road network, but companies might be able to charge for any new capacity they created, hoping this would come as a relief to some users of the A14.
Unfortunately, the most recent privately funded new-build toll road – the 27-mile M6 toll opened in late 2003 to help alleviate chronic congestion – was reported by the Highways Agency, after five years of operation, to be falling in user numbers.
Also, traffic on the parallel section of the M6 was back ‘at or near’ pre-toll road levels, and journey times on the ‘old’ M6 section were considerably shorter.
This lends some weight to shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle’s warning that the proposals ‘risk simply driving traffic on to local roads, increasing congestion and emissions’.
Mr Cameron talked about the need for innovation to end the ‘sweating of old assets’ and to stop the rot of a ‘decades-long degradation of our national infrastructure’ – few in the highways sector would dispute this.
The latest findings from the annual local authority road maintenance (ALARM) survey reported a funding shortfall of £800m – equating to an average of £5.3m for each authority and a backlog totalling nearly £10bn that it would take 11 years to clear. This would meet most people’s criteria of a sector ‘sweating old assets’.
However, the Department for Transport has confirmed the feasibility study for the prime minister’s proposals with the Treasury will only focus on motorways and trunk roads and not local authority roads.
Some may argue this is a good thing for the local government sector. Alasdair Reisner, director of internal affairs at the Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association, gave Mr Cameron’s plans a cautious welcome but warned: ‘Such major changes can lead to delays in the delivery of work programmes. We would have concerns about the impact on the roads network should there be any hiatus in activity as new models are implemented.’
And, of course, as the Local Government Association (LGA) pointed out, councils won’t be free from trouble by being ignored.
Cllr Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s economy and transport board, said: ‘There is no place whatsoever for an extra, obstructive layer of bureaucracy which has a priority above that of benefiting road users and nearby communities.’
The Financial Times’ John Kay wrote earlier this month – in a column with the truly innovative title, ‘Why the Pembury road matters more than the Olympics’, – that we ‘should shift our focus from aggregate totals and visionary projects to smaller issues more likely to deliver economic benefits and easier lives’.
He referred to Rod Eddington’s 2006 report on UK transport to support his case. But lamented the real issue may be that the Olympics provided a photo opportunity with the Queen, whereas dualling the Pembury road provides one with a parish councillor.
If Mr Cameron had developed a plan – or even a proposal to develop one – to tackle the £10bn pothole backlog, he might have had the undying gratitude of many a council officer.
But what prime minister wants to give a major policy speech on potholes?