Roads reform - are we there yet? #betterroads

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In the past week the DfT have published the response to their consultation on transforming the Highways Agency into a government owned company. Today the Transport Select Committee also published the results of their inquiry into the proposed reforms.

We've blogged about these reforms before and are in broad agreement, with our concerns relating to the oversight of the new body and the lack of a sustainable funding stream for managing roads.

Providing oversight

The proposed reforms would see the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and Passenger Focus providing advice to the Secretary of State for Transport on the performance of the company.

  • ORR would monitor the efficiency and performance of the company and
  • Passenger Focus would represent the interests of road users

The Government promised ‘no new quangos' and this seems to be the main argument used against the creation of new bodies as part of these reforms.

The Transport Select Committee has however today recommended that ORR should have the ‘power of a full regulatory authority' holding the Highways Agency to account.

In EEF's view the proposal to use Passenger Focus as a road user champion, rather than create a distinct new body, is also a missed opportunity.

Beyond this initial round of reform there are several high profile issues where a strong publicly vocal champion for all road users will help to ensure the debate on future reform is a constructive one.

Road users need to be able to trust that reforms are being done in their interests. Putting their views front and centre as part of these reforms, rather than burying them in another organisation, would have provided a clear indication that these views had a high priority.

The Roads Minister made the argument himself in evidence to the Select Committee (in relation to ORR) he said:

“The argument put to me about using an existing structure to police and monitor this organisation is that we do not want to set up another quango, and I can see that argument, because this Government have made promises to cut red tape and quangos.But if it just means having another department in the Office of Rail Regulation, with another 40 or 50 or more people working there, just so we do not call it another quango, I am not sure that is a very good argument.”

Sustainable funding

The Government has promised a three-fold increase in investment in the strategic road network, this is welcome news given the decades of underinvestment. The proposed reforms to the Highways Agency aim to underpin that investment by providing certainty for five years.

Beyond that initial five years however, uncertainty remains - inhibiting the move from a short term to long term approach to managing England's roads. In other infrastructure sectors with similar five year funding periods, efficiency gains can be lost due to the ‘bunching' of decisions on the next funding period toward the end of the five year cycle.

Infrastructure UK's cost review found that in one sector ‘the five yearly reviews are creating a line of uncertainty in investment around the review point which means that potential efficiency savings continue to be lost'.

We've made the argument before that the debate on reaching a more sustainable funding settlement for the road network needs to be had. The Transport Select Committee today comes to the same conclusion urging that consensus be found.

EEF will be outlining our own position on options for long term road funding later on this year, building on the initial work we did as part of our Transport for Growth report.


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