Getting plans for our strategic roads in a good shape

3 February 2017

By Peter Antolik, Director, Highways.

This week we published our Update on Highways England’s capital planning and asset management.  Our report outlines the progress the company has made in developing better plans for improving England’s motorways and trunk roads and managing the existing network better. It’s a good example of how we report our independent view of Highways England’s performance – and whether it is delivering value for money for us, as taxpayers.

Since Highways England began to deliver against its first five year plan in April 2015, we have raised concerns that the company needs to set out clearer plans for what capital investment it will deliver. For example, we are keen to see how the major road improvement schemes fit with renewal works, and whether the overall programme is optimised. It’s important that the company has strong plans showing what it will deliver, when, and for what cost. This will reduce disruption from roadworks and ensure a better experience for road users.

We have raised particular concerns that Highways England should make sure that has a deliverable and affordable plan. For example, the company’s cost forecasts for the 112 major schemes currently exceed the funding available. Much of this difference is due to the company intentionally planning more work than it is funded for, in anticipation that some works are delayed or removed from the programme. This is an appropriate way for the company to manage risk. But we now need Highways England to set out a clear plan for how it will bring down the gap between its forecast costs and funding.

Highways England has listened to our concerns. It is planning better, smoothing the profile of works, and improving its grip on costs.  Its revised plans are not yet complete, but they should result in better planning of roadworks and more cost-effective delivery.  It is also likely to mean that some schemes in the Road Investment Strategy will be brought forward, delayed or reviewed to make sure they are still good value for money.

There’s more to do in this first five-year period, and there are lessons to be learned as the Department for Transport and Highways England begin to develop the next five-year plan from 2020.

Our report also highlights concerns about how Highways England manages road condition and the need for it to improve its reporting processes around critical data. Highways England was below its target for the condition of its road surface in 2015 16 due to lower skid resistance. Road condition has since improved, but it remains below target. Again, Highways England has responded to our concerns, and the company has committed to produce a road condition improvement plan.

Our report forms part of process of providing transparency and holding Highways England to account. We continue to work with the company and the Department for Transport to ensure its commitments are clear and performance is measurable. We will be monitoring both areas closely and will take action if improvements are not delivered.