This is hopefully not a drill.
The Government has today published the long awaited Command Paper Action for Roads: A network for the 21st Century, which sets out a way forward for investing in our road network. For too many years announced road projects were left in limbo at each election as future Governments could revise or even cancel plans.
The recently heralded improvements to the A14 road network, a key freight corridor to the port of Felixstowe, was originally cancelled by the current Government in 2010, only to have funding reallocated in the recent Spending Round for 2015/16 with construction starting in 2016. The outcome of the next election could have easily reversed this decision... until now.
The Command Paper contains some clear commitments, including:
- Introduction of a legal framework to provide a six year certainty on roads funding, with legislation next year following consultation
- Turning the Highways Agency into a publicly owned corporation, to free it to make more strategic decisions on how best to meet road network challenges across that funding period
This moves road funding a step closer to the model in the rail industry, where Government priorities and minimum funding is set out for 5 year control periods. In addition, the regulator, the ORR, undertakes extensive consultation with stakeholders on Network Rail's targets for each control period, including access charges; a similar 'consultative' approach for roads could form part of the role of the 'motorists champion' also announced today.
Roads are critical to manufacturers, the figures from our recent Transport for Growth report shows:
- Four-fifths of manufacturers say the road network is critical to their business
- Half say the poor state of UK roads significantly increases their operating costs
- Two-thirds of export-intensive manufacturers identify investment in road access to international gateways, such as ports, as critical to their growth
It also worth reiterating from our recent blog post, it isn't a case that roads are marginally more important than other forms of transport. Roads as an importance for manufacturers - dominates.
82% of manufacturers rated the road network as critical to their business, 43% ports, 30.8% aviation and just 3.3% rail.
The announcement today is a step in the right direction to help end the stop-start cycle of investment in our road network. But this is only the start; road underinvestment is a result of over-stretched public finances and a transport budget which tends to get skewed toward rail investment. Every option needs to be discussed about how we fill this funding gap in the future, including the role of road user charging.
The A14 upgrade will be part funded through the use of road tolling. But tolling is only a short term solution for new roads. The key problem is the chronic underinvestment in existing roads. Funding certainty on maintenance, is just as important as funding certainty on capital investment and upgrades.
As part of our Transport for Growth survey we asked members to pick the various options under which they would support road pricing. More would consider supporting it if significant improvements in the existing road network could be delivered (44%) than those who wanted it just for new roads (29%).
Circumstances under which manufacturers would support road charging
That a significant proportion of manufacturers are willing to even consider this, further underlines the desperate state of the existing road network and its impact on manufacturing businesses.