Mixed views on Highways Agency road reforms

This week, The Transport Committee has said that it isn’t convinced that transforming the Highways Agency (HA) in to a Government owned company will make it more efficient and cost-effective. House of Commons Transport Select Committee chairman Louise Ellman said in a letter to Department for Transport minister Robert Goodwill that: “We are not convinced by the case for establishing a government-owned company in the Highways Agency”.

This follows the Action for Roads command paper which in July 2013 laid out plans to rad­i­cally change the way strate­gic roads are funded and managed in the UK. One of the proposals was to trans­form the High­ways Agency into a Government-owned company, achieving £600m savings by 2020/21 and thereby sealing a long-term approach to road infrastructure funding.

The new set up would change the way motorways and trunk roads are managed, and empower motorists to express their views about road maintenance, operation and development.

The paper also suggests the introduction of a new watchdog to support these views, giving more opportunities for open discussion and transparency when highway plans are being considered.

An article in The Telegraph a month after the plans were laid out said that the funding would reverse “decades of underinvestment in roads”.

According to the Highways Agency, which is currently an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport, the main aims of the changes were to:

  • give the Agency the freedom to man­age the day-to-day oper­a­tion of the roads while remain­ing fully account­able for the state of the network
  • improve account­abil­ity and trans­parency for road users and the wider pub­lic relating to their performance and how they were delivering
  • pro­vide greater cer­tainty and flex­i­bil­ity of fund­ing, and sta­bil­ity over deliv­ery require­ments, to allow the oper­a­tor and the sup­ply chain to plan ahead and deliver more efficiently.

It all sounded pretty positive. However, in the letter, sent on 17 March 2014 to the Department for Transport Minister, Ms. Ellman expressed concerns. The Transport Select Committee said that the advertised benefits seem achievable through better management of the existing set-up rather than “the upheaval and expense a change of structure would entail”.

Ms. Ellman also wrote that, in principle, five-year funding packages for infrastructure are welcomed, which should facilitate long-term planning.

Other sources quote savings of £2.6 billion over the next 10 years to the taxpayer if the reforms were to be implemented. We will wait and see what happens next.