Commons Gate

The major road network (HC 533-i)

Transport Committee 20 May 2009

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Evidence given by:
2.45 p.m. Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Highways and Transportation, Mr Alan Stilwell, University College London, Dr David Metz, Highways Agency, Graham Dalton, Chief Executive, Ginny Clarke, Network Services Director,
3.30 p.m., Local Government Association, Cllr David Sparks, Mersey Gateway, Steve Nicholson, Project Director, Mersey Gateway, County Surveyors' Society, Brian Smith, Executive Director, Environment Services

Q5 Mr. David Clelland: Mr Dalton said that the Highways Agency are responsible for linking ports, airports and major population areas. I think that is right. Is he satisfied that the current network actually achieves that right across the United Kingdom?

Mr Dalton: Pretty much so. There was a major review about ten years ago which led to something like 2,000 miles of road being de-trunked and certainly some of those which were de-trunked, quite rightly, were no longer fulfilling the purpose they had perhaps done ten or 20 years before. It certainly means that on the whole in the Highways Agency we are operating, because with intensively trafficked networks it is as much about maintaining as actively operating relatively high-speed roads carrying heavy traffic, both people and freight. You could never say that the network is exactly the right shape or size; there are shades of grey. We have the main core of the nationally prescribed network and since about four years ago the regional parts of the network, where there was stronger regional influence and prioritisation over how that should be operated and developed, which has helped. I know the Department for Transport is doing a bit of work now and as part of the consultation towards a sustainable transport strategy is looking at some other small adjustments, some potential switches from regional to national routes, saying that we should not just be going into town, we should be going right into port or right to port gate, not necessarily with a change of ownership but at least integrating.

Q6 Mr. David Clelland: How important is it that the country's motorway network actually links all regions and nations of the UK?

Mr Dalton: It is important that there is a strategic road network. Less than half my network is motorway. It is not necessary per se to have motorway to every point.

Q7 Mr. David Clelland: Not every point but every region.

Mr Dalton: Yes, every region. There are bottlenecks on our network, some of them in places where it is difficult to invest, some where improvements are being made to make those connections. Certainly regionally the connections are essentially there, whether they are all of standard I am sure members will have a view and the Department. It is a matter of prioritisation.

Q8 Mr. David Clelland: As you might imagine, I have a view about the north east in particular.

Mr Dalton: I have a rough idea.

Q9 Mr. David Clelland: The north east is not as yet linked up to the motorway system. As you know, there is no motorway up from Dishforth to Scotch Corner. I understand the Department have now agreed that section of road will be completed. Is there any timescale for that?

Mr Dalton: We have started construction on site between Dishforth and Barton, so it is a job which is in construction.

Q10 Mr. David Clelland: How long is that going to take?

Mr Dalton: Dishforth to Leeming is the first part and, off the top of my head, it is about a three-year construction period there. Of course further down, Bramham to Wetherby is a job which is finishing in the next three or four months, so that is taking out another gap.

Q11 Mr. David Clelland: Will that be what we recognise as a standard motorway, three lanes with hard shoulder?

Mr Dalton: Not necessarily motorway standard but as far as a driver road user is concerned near enough the same with a lot of the side roads and side junctions taken off. It is not necessarily motorway but it is a high-speed route and safe route and fast motor route.

Q12 Mr. David Clelland: Will it be two lanes or three lanes?

Mr Dalton: I cannot remember off hand.


Q15 Mr. David Clelland: Mr Martlew rather pre-empted me. I was not talking about the A1 North of Newcastle, I was talking about the extension between Dishforth and Scotch Corner and I was trying to establish whether that was going to the same three-lane standard as the motorway South of that.

Mr Dalton: I should know but I do not know off the top of my head. I think it is three lanes but I am not certain and I can confirm to you.

Q16 Mr. David Clelland: The reason I am asking is that when you get to Scotch Corner of course you drop down to a two-lane motorway and that is responsible for much of the congestion you have just described. I am just wondering whether or not the Department has in mind that there ought to be a standard in terms of these heavily used trunk roads? Should there be a minimum standard?

Mr Dalton: The major part of the business case for Dishforth to Barton is not so much about congestion but it is taking out the side turnings and the central reservation gaps and the crossovers which is where the incidents occur, it is where the accidents occur, frankly that is where the fatalities occur. If you take those out, that in turn improves traffic flow because you do not have the disruption breaking down traffic flow. That is where the real benefits come; there is not as much congestion on those roads, it is just getting traffic flows.

Ms Clarke: We do not have a set standard. It is linked to traffic flows. On a road like that we would be looking at a minimum level of two lanes each way, a dual carriageway effectively, partly because of the speed of the road. So we would be assuming we would be planning to get the strategic traffic through; we would be looking for a dual carriageway. Anything above that is related to the volume of the traffic, whether it is two, three or four lanes will then be a relationship to the expected traffic over a period of time.

Q17 Mr. David Clelland: I know it is all a question of investment and finance, but would it not be sensible, from the motorists' point of view, for them to know what is motorway and what is not, when they move from a four-lane motorway down to a three-lane motorway down to a two-lane motorway and back up to a three-lane motorway? Should there not be a standard motorway?

Ms Clarke: The point is that you could say it should be three lanes but in some areas that is not necessary and you would be investing money where actually you did not need to do so. So the reason for having the choice between two, three and four lanes is that we are best able to match the cost of that provision against the benefits we provide.

Q18 Mr. David Clelland: The problem with that argument is that a three-lane motorway was not necessary when they built the A1 up to the north east but it is necessary now, so it is a question of planning for the future.

Ms Clarke: Yes and to some extent that is what we do. We do look to the future provision, not just the year of opening but the years after that. That is why we will just confirm to you the standard of the top half of the Dishforth to Barton section.


Q24 Mr. David Clelland: On the modal shift to public transport, given the fact that most public transport companies are in private hands and run for private profit how are you going to influence a shift unless the subsidy can be unlimited, which it cannot, to move from cars to public transport?

Mr Stilwell: There are clearly some issues there. We do have a largely deregulated public transport system outside of London and that does create some serious challenges. Things are getting better. The Local Transport Act, introduced last year, makes it arguably easier to introduce a London-style franchising system for buses. It is yet to be tested just how easy that is but in theory at least we can have greater integration in our metropolitan areas to allow better planning of public transport systems.

Q25 Mr. David Clelland: So if for any reason the Local Transport Act was unable to be enacted fully that would be a bit of a setback for public transport then.

Mr Stilwell: Yes, I guess it would, but we should not underestimate the ability of the various partners to get together to work in partnership without the force of an Act of Parliament behind them.

Mr. David Clelland: The partnerships I have seen growing in the last few months have come directly out of the Local Transport Act with bus operators anticipating what might happen. If it had not been for the Local Transport Act perhaps we would not be getting so much co-operation.


Q46 Mr. David Clelland: This is probably more a question for Mr Stilwell really. Should the Highways Agency take responsibility for key parts of the secondary road network?

Mr Stilwell: No, I think not. As Graham Dalton said earlier, the Highways Agency undertook a phased de-trunking of the non core network some years back and by and large that was the right thing to do. What is important though is the relationship between the Highways Agency and local authorities which have responsibility for the remainder of the Highways network. That relationship has been very strong in my view over many years. There may be many areas where it could be even stronger, but having that right level of strategic planning across the agencies and authorities which are responsible for different parts of the network is the right way forward. The answer to your question is no, I do not think there is a case for that.

Q47 Mr. David Clelland: I was interested in your answer because it does rather demonstrate something of a dilemma for the local authorities. We come back to the north east and the Highways Agency's objective of linking ports, airports and population centres. Three very important roads for doing just that, the A66, the A69 and the A1 north of Newcastle are roads which are not the responsibility of the Highways Agency but come under the regional transport allocation. When the regional transport board sits down and makes its priorities for the following year or whatever period it is, they can only work within the budget they have. So there is absolutely no point whatever in them making a priority of something which they cannot afford or which would take up the whole budget and nothing else would be done. There is a dilemma there. As long as those important strategic links are the responsibility of local authorities or regional authorities rather than the Highways Agency, what prospect is there of them ever being improved?

Mr Stilwell: That is a really important point. The introduction of the regional funding allocation process included with it a proportion of the Highways Agency funding for regional, not national, parts of the network related to that process. So actually the regional prioritisation process includes local roads and Highways Agency roads of regional not national significance. I think that is the right term. So those decisions for regional prioritisation should be taken in the round, taking account of priorities irrespective of responsibilities.

Mr Dalton: The roads you are talking about are Highways Agency roads and we are responsible for maintaining them but the prioritisation of investment for improvement is down to the regions.

Q48 Mr. David Clelland: It is obviously the investment for improvement which I am concerned about.

Mr Dalton: Yes.


Q63 Mr. David Clelland: How important is partnership working between local authorities and the Highways Agency?

Cllr Sparks: It is extremely important and on the whole is very good. With the de-trunking of roads, you have a situation where local authorities have increased their responsibility for the road network. What is particularly important from our point of view at the LGA in terms of regeneration and transport, which I know is a priority of yours, is the role of transport in relation to regeneration. Our research in relation to the economic development of our communities has emphasised how important the sub-region is and therefore, given the importance of the sub-region, you cannot just deal with local roads and local transport and regenerate your economy, because your economy is subject not just to global factors but to sub-regional factors.

Mr Smith: To give another angle on that and building on what Mr Sparks is saying, on a day-to-day basis the public does not recognise whether they are actually on a Highways Agency road or a local authority road. The point I would want to bring out is, and it comes back to our network management responsibilities, that the roads come together. So if there is an incident on a Highways Agency road they are looking to our roads for diversionary routes and the like. Equally, if we have a problem on our roads, it can have an impact on the Highways Agency. So we do have to work together. There is generally a good relationship, as you were hearing in the last session. We do have things like the Memorandum of Understanding. Around the country we have diversionary routes which are in place but we do have to work even more closely than that on an operational basis just to make sure we are joining up everything from when we do maintenance to how we do some of the working together on development, as you were hearing in the last session.

Q64 Chairman: On the Mersey Gateway Project you depend very much on close working between the local authority and the Highways Agency.

Mr Nicholson: We do.

Q65 Chairman: Has that been successful?

Mr Nicholson: It has matured and we now have a very successful relationship with the Agency. It commenced with a certain difficulty in that we were building new capacity in a place which could cause redistribution of traffic using the Highways Agency's network and that could put additional pressures on their network. It was mooted initially that we were going to have to fund some improvements on the motorway network which potentially could jeopardise the project from the outset. We have now moved to a position where we have a consensus with the Agency that overall we are adding capacity in an appropriate way that indeed will add value to the Agency's future performance in improving journey time reliability. We now have very much a solid partnership with the Agency, again backed up with a Memorandum of Understanding and it has been a useful course to take and has informed the partnership-building on both sides.

Q66 Mr. David Clelland: The Highways Agency told us that although they are responsible for the maintenance of some of the key secondary roads the actual improvement of those roads and the investment in those roads will be the responsibility of the regional funding allocation. Given what Councillor Sparks said about the importance of some of these roads to regional economic development, is there a problem there?

Mr Smith: The quick answer is yes, there are issues and the key to that is that there is not enough money in the system. Across all regions in the country we are trying to deal with these Highways Agency roads which are the ones not of national importance which are in the same funding pot as the local authority roads as well and there are some very difficult decisions to be taken about which ones we should be funding. There are issues there and I guess it is great to be having local decision-making and we would all applaud that and it is important to do so. However, we are struggling with not a lot of money and I suppose what is beginning to worry us now are the prospects for future years as we look forward.

Q67 Mr. David Clelland: Should the balance of funding responsibility between local authorities and highways authorities be shifted in favour of local authorities?

Mr Smith: It would be very easy from a local authority point of view to say yes, but at the end of the day Government have to take an overall view of the situation and make a judgement about how much money it can afford in total. One of the things - and we may well come back to this and it was being referred to in the earlier session - is this idea of de-trunking and the responsibilities which have come to local authorities. I think that is good because it helps us to manage a more rational network in that way, but as ever there are tensions between your responsibilities and the funding you have available. It touches all the services we do anyway in local authorities; we are used to difficult decisions about priorities.

Cllr Sparks: There is a point we need to add to that though, in that we are slightly ahead of the game really and probably ahead of the Government in terms of what we are now looking at in local government; increasingly we have to try to bring spending together into more and more of a single pot, again at a sub-regional level, so that we can address the strategic priorities of an area and bid for the appropriate funding. So it would not just be a question of deciding on "highway grounds", it would also be taking into account housing development, economic development, et cetera.

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.

The full transcript may be read here.

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