The common sense approach

Steve Gooding, former Department for Transport director and director of the RAC Foundation, gives his expert analysis on the Road Investment Strategy (RIS) reprofiling.

There were two ways you could take the announcement from Highways England that its major roads programme was being re-jigged.

To a glass-half-empty sort of person the news that 16 schemes were to be rescheduled – and for rescheduled read delayed – would have been evidence that the great promises made for the current (and first) five-year RIS were not worth the ministerial note paper they were written on.

This view would have been reinforced by the accompanying detail that a further six schemes had ‘been paused for further review and consideration’ or, in layman’s terms, were being lined up for the chop because they don’t deliver value for money.

To add final insult to injury two more schemes were being reworked in the hope they would be worthy of public cash and could eventually be included in RIS2.
But a glass-half-full character – like me – would observe that the rebalancing of the programme in this way is perfectly sensible. As many a general will tell you even the best laid plans don’t survive first contact with the enemy. You adapt to circumstances. You improve where you can. You reassess where you have to. And you advance faster where conditions allow, something Highways England is doing with the 10 schemes actually being brought forward.

Context is everything. We need to remember where we are today and where we were just a few years ago.

Back in 2011 the RAC Foundation published a report that identified 96 major road projects – both local authority and, as it was at the time, Highways Agency – that had been costed but were languishing on the shelves because of an absence of funding. This investment backlog was calculated to be in the region of £11bn.

At the time there was little prospect of the list shortening anytime soon. Decisions about transport spending were made on a hand to mouth basis with ministers rarely earmarking money for more than 12 months in advance. The situation for road users, faced with deteriorating carriageways and mounting congestion, was dire. It was little better for the construction industry, who shied away from making their own investment commitments – in plant, in skills – for fear that there would be nothing for the machines, men and women to do.

Fast forward to 2015 and the far-sighted commitment to give to roads what has long been taken for granted on the railways: a five-year schedule of works and the assurance there’d be funds to do it with.

Yes, we’d still argue that the financial commitment was no more than a ministerial pledge and that the subsequently-promised guarantee of ringfenced funds from the proceeds of Vehicle Excise Duty should be enshrined in law.

But still, delivering the £15bn RIS programme was always going to be a challenge, not least because it was heavily backloaded, with more schemes slated for the end of the period than the beginning. And given that our major road network is perhaps the busiest in Europe any long-term benefit from the maintenance and enhancements was likely to be at the short-term expense of increased jams today and tomorrow.

Something had to give. But not, it seems, the longer-term commitment to a series of badly-needed route upgrades. We will still get there, but with less disruption near term, and less of a resource mountain to climb for the supply chain.

So, hurrah, then, for the application of good programme management and the exercise of common sense. You will rarely find us welcoming the announcement of deferred investment, but on this occasion we are happy to do so.

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