The Budget will be on 22 November. Chancellor Philip Hammond faces the unenviable task of balancing the books, says Steve Gooding.
The numbers involved are huge and the options available limited by both practicalities and politics. That is why Treasury ministers and officials alike are inherently reluctant to issue long-term pledges of funding, which will inevitably further constrain their room for manoeuvre.
All the more remarkable, then, that the previous chancellor, George Osborne, signed up to the five-year financial settlement in the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS1), giving Highways England certainty over the funding available. Yes, it only applied to the motorways and major A roads in Highways England’s stewardship, but after all, they are the most important roads, aren’t they?
Up to a point, because last year’s Rees Jeffreys Road Fund report by David Quarmby and Phil Carey identified a rather larger Major Road Network (MRN). It encompasses the Strategic Road Network (SRN) but – based on their assessment of the roads that serve an economically significant national and regional purpose – goes further.
What might chancellor Hammond have to say about these roads when he shares his fiscal thinking with us in November?
Transport secretary Chris Grayling has indicated his support for identifying the additional miles of major road – the Rees Jeffreys work went only as far as publishing an indicative network – and for making some money available from the Road Fund, soon to be fed by income from Vehicle Excise Duty.
So long as that doesn’t undermine the scale and certainty of investment planning at Highways England it is all sounding positive so far. But there are still some potentially tricky issues to be worked through, starting with the fairly obvious fact that however they are eventually defined, the major roads beyond the SRN will inevitably be the responsibility of numerous separate highway authorities. How best to divvy up the cash?
Precedent suggests a challenge fund of some sort is on the cards. Hands up if you remember the ‘local majors’ fund?
Keep them raised if you relish the thought of another competitive bidding round. Without wanting to look an investment funding gift horse in the mouth, competitions invariably come with an overhead of bidding costs, not to mention the inevitable row about the way web-based transport analysis guidance (WebTAG) values costs and benefits.
That is why the emerging sub-national transport bodies (STBs) are important. Who better to take a view on regional significance? That said, not everywhere has an STB…yet.
So, we have the prospect of money on the table to back the recognition that journeys rarely, if ever, begin and end on the SRN. But let us not lose sight of two other important factors.
First, in defining the MRN, Quarmby and Carey identified something including the SRN, not merely additional and separate to it. In some places the MRN fills gaps in the SRN; in others it provides resilience – an alternative route in the event of disruption.
When it comes to thinking about the stretches of route that need enhancement we need a joined-up process between STBs, highway authorities and Highways England.
The Rees Jeffreys report stopped short of advocating a large-scale re-trunking exercise, but the test of the DfT’s approach will be whether it can foster and encourage co-operation, not only in thinking about what’s needed but also about how and when it might be best delivered.
Second, let us not forget the issues of operation and maintenance. New schemes and the ribbon cutting that goes with them are beloved of politicians but we already have a network that is pretty well-developed. Joined-up thinking extends to operational decisions and funding pressures are keenly felt on maintenance budgets.
November might bring some answers but, just like RIS 1, our best hope is that they are a further step in the right direction on a journey that will stretch well beyond the autumn of 2017.
Steve Gooding is director of the RAC Foundation.