Commons Gate

The Work of The Department for Transport's Executive Agencies - Driver and Vehicle Operator Group and The Highways Agency (HC 907-ii)

Transport Committee 15 Feb 2006

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Evidence given by Mr Archie Robertson, Chief Executive, and Mr Mel Zuydam, Financial Director, Highways Agency

Q355 Mr. David Clelland: Mr Robertson, your Agency is responsible for the major road network in this country but one region, namely the North East, is still as yet not directly connected to the motorway system. Do you regard that as a failure on your part?

Mr Robertson: I do not recognise the issue. The North East is connected in particular through the M1 and TransPennine routes to the rest of the country. I certainly do not see it as remote in any way.

Q356 Mr. David Clelland: There is no motorway linking the A1(M) in the North East to the M1.

Mr Robertson: There is motorway or close to motorway standard.

Q357 Mr. David Clelland: Dual carriageway?

Mr Robertson: Yes.

Q358 Mr. David Clelland: It is not a three lane motorway.

Mr Robertson: No. That is an observation of fact.

Q359 Mr. David Clelland: Is it not important that the North East does not have any three lane motorway connected to the rest of the system?

Mr Robertson: I do not think it is an objective in itself because it is certainly not the objective of the Highways Agency to build roads. It is an objective of the Highways Agency to make sure that the country's strategic road transport needs are met.

Q360 Mr. David Clelland: You are concerned about congestion?

Mr Robertson: I am, yes.

Q361 Mr. David Clelland: What major impact have you had on congestion in the North East in the last ten years?

Mr Robertson: We have invested in the A1 with significant improvements particularly in the Darlington to Dishforth scheme with an upgrading of the network to motorway standard. We have carried out a number of improvements of junctions in order to let traffic move more smoothly and of course we are now deploying traffic officers on all of that network in order to make sure that we get the best out of it and more reliable journeys for travellers.

Q362 Mr. David Clelland: The congestion is worse now than it was before you started all this improvement.

Mr Robertson: You could recognise that as a circumstance right round the country. Indeed, it is not my mission to do that. The objective I have been given by the Secretary of State is in respect of investing to tackle the worst bottlenecks through both the TPI and other programmes of investment in the existing network, making the existing network work harder through deployment of the traffic officer service, for example, technology in order to keep people travelling more smoothly and better traffic information so that people can make their own decisions about travelling, that leading of course to the demand management measure that the Secretary of State is now considering and making announcements about.

Q363 Mr. David Clelland: Is the Highways Agency part of overall joined up government thinking or do you just go merrily on your own way regardless of what the government's other policies might be? I am thinking of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry. They are all very concerned that regional disparities are happening when regional economic development takes place. Are you co-operating in all of that?

Mr Robertson: We are co-operating actively at the tactical level. These are what would be described as ministerial and departmental initiatives that ought to be joined up. We are a delivery agency but we recognise that an important part of what we do is not only making sure that existing strategic traffic can be looked after properly but that development can be enabled in a sustainable way.

Q364 Mr. David Clelland: Can you explain what your Agency's broad policy is for issuing Article 14 directions? Are they issued as a matter of routine or as a last resort?

Mr Robertson: They are issued for different reasons in different circumstances. In the simplest of cases, I suppose, they are issued where a developer is proposing a development which would require to be joined to a major trunk road or motorway, where it is simply unsafe, which we are not prepared to sustain. In that case, we would give a direction prohibiting those sorts of connections. We do that occasionally and generally for very small developments and generally in places where there is a lot of high speed traffic. We use Article 14 directions from time to time in examining developments and in making sure that proper consideration has been given to the development in terms of sustaining the road network, to make sure that information is available and has been used to come up with the most sustainable solution. As you will recognise with the busiest motorway network on the planet, it is challenging to be able to support development when our roads are as busy as they are. It is increasingly the case that we cannot simply say, "Yes, you can come on" or, "You can upgrade this junction." Increasingly what we are finding is that we need to agree with developers not just capital injections but travel plans so that traffic is managed in a particular way, public transport is maximised and traffic is controlled so that ----

Chairman: I think we get the idea.

Q365 Mr. David Clelland: Such is the extent of congestion in the northern region that you and your colleagues have indicated that one extra vehicle could be material in terms of making decisions around Article 14 directions. Therefore, just about every development that is proposed will fall into that category. That means, as far as the North East is concerned, your department is crucial so far as economic development is concerned. Do you agree with that?

Mr Robertson: Yes, and our regional director is working very actively.

Q366 Mr. David Clelland: Is that Mr Steve Spink?

Mr Robertson: No, Mr John Bagley.

Q367 Mr. David Clelland: Do you know Mr Spink? He is one of your managers.

Mr Robertson: I know the name.

Q368 Mr. David Clelland: It was put to him recently that the North East needs 65,000 additional jobs to take it from 80 per cent of the national average to 90 per cent in terms of economic activity. Mr Spink's reply was, in terms of your Agency's influence in the region, "I doubt that we will be able to sustain that level of development. I do not think it will be possible." If your Agency has anything to do with it, the North East cannot even rise to the modest level of 90 per cent national average.

Mr Robertson: I can assure that we will do everything that we can to enable development to take place consistent with the responsibilities I am given by the Secretary of State to make sure that highway traffic is kept moving.

Q369 Chairman: You might like to give us a detailed note on that, Mr Robertson, because I am sure Mr Clelland would like that. We would like to know approximately what the timetable is and what involvements you have in the North East.

Mr Robertson: Can you be specific as to what you want a note on, please?

Q370 Mr. David Clelland: I am concerned about the overall strategy of the department in issuing Article 14 directions and the effect these are having on economic development in the North East. Can I give you an example? Answer this question and I will give you an example: in issuing Article 14 directions, would account be taken of imminent road improvements?

Mr Robertson: Yes, it could be. What we are trying to do now is sit down with the developer at an early stage to look at the problem in the round.

Chairman: You did explain that to us.

Q371 Mr. David Clelland: Can I just give you an example? Durham Tees Valley Airport is hoping to develop a new terminal. It is an investment of £56 million with the possible creation of 1,800 jobs. Despite a ministerial announcement that the Long Newton interchange on the A66 is to be put out to tender for construction to commence in 2006, your Agency wants the applicants to undertake an exercise to show the traffic impact without the Long Newton interchange being built. This is delaying the scheme and we are now told that there is no prospect of getting a decision from the Highways Agency. This is an extremely important development and your Agency is holding it up. How is that part of overall government thinking in terms of economic development in the regions?

Mr Robertson: We are using Article 14 directions to make sure that the right information is pulled together so that when we do sit down with developers we can have a properly joined up conversation about what the pressures are now, what the impacts of things coming in the future might be, because nothing is such a precise science that you can do it. What we need to do is have good information and sit down to see what is the best we can facilitate. That is what we will do.

Q372 Mr. David Clelland: Has Sir Ron Eddington raised these issues with you? He told this Committee he would raise these matters with you. Has he done that?

Mr Robertson: I have met Ron Eddington in other circumstances. He has not formally raised that with the department. His report is not due until July.

Q373 Mr. David Clelland: You think your Agency strikes the right balance on issuing Article 14 notices between local and agency interests?

Mr Robertson: Not between local and agency interests because the agency interest is the agency responsibility and the agency responsibility is to keep the strategic highways moving so that people in the North East can ----

Q374 Chairman: What Mr Clelland wants from you is a short memo that sets out the numbers of schemes in the North East where Article 14 is involved.

Mr Robertson: I would be happy to write to you.

Q375 Mr. David Clelland: Are you doing anything to improve your performance and speed up the process of these Article 14 notices? Why does it take so long?

Mr Robertson: Yes, we are using Article 14 directions to get better information out of developers quicker so that we can sit down and get these things sorted out.

Q376 Mr. David Clelland: You are improving your performance? You are speeding up the process of these Article 14 notices?

Mr Robertson: The critical issue is finding a way to enable those developments to take place at the same time as developments on the strategic network. We are also reviewing, with the department and with the Secretary of State, whether there are ways that the requirements could be facilitated so that we can be helped to come to more prompt and effective conclusions.

Mr. David Clelland: You are not succeeding in convincing the local authorities in the North East that you are being very helpful.

Q377 Chairman: I think he has got the message. He is going to go away, do some homework and let us have a note on what is going on in the North East.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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