The road ahead for highways investment...rebuilding, not roadbuilding

The highways sector finds itself at something of a crossroads (pardon the pun).

With a general election on the horizon, the introduction of 'Network North' that seemed to rekindle road building hopes, the launch of the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) offering a balanced longer-term vision, the Transport Select Committee Report pushing for a 'repairs' Road Investment Strategy (RIS) 3 and an electioneering Government largely focussing on issues that affect private individuals, you can't blame the sector for asking 'where will the money be spent'?

In recent weeks the industry gathered for one of its biggest events, Highways UK, hosting both the then Minister for Roads and Local Transport, Richard Holden MP, and Shadow Transport Minister Bill Esterson MP. Mr Holden, who has recently been made Conservative Party Chairman in Rishi's cabinet reshuffle, declared that roads were the country's most important economic asset. He reiterated the narrative around Network North, stating that it will 'benefit more people, more places, more quickly'.

Given his prominence in the party we can hope that this sentiment runs deep, but in the recent King's Speech (7 Nov) the transport sector was left largely disappointed, many hoping for a transport bill, left with just the rail bill, designed largely to underpin the transition to Great British Rail.

In balance Mr Esterson, at Highways UK, reiterated Labour's intent to use any early period of office to conduct a review of every major infrastructure project, echoing Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves key note speech on day two of the Labour conference, where she set out plans to "get Britain building again" in order to revive the economy.

He was less detailed on plans compared to the shopping list that is Network North, instead offering to engage with the sector over the coming months to better understand what it needs to move forward.

And more recently, this was built on with the news just over a week ago that Labour was launching a new British Infrastructure Council to engage with the industry to 'unleash the lifeblood of investment through the industrial arteries of this country'. Further commitment to listen and learn not just to mandate.

In the Autumn Statement (22 Nov) the Government echoed the same sentiment with the announcement of their 'new' star chamber to drive major infrastructure delivery, linked to planning reforms designed to speed up project progress. So both parties seem keen to demonstrate a willingness to collaborate in the infrastructure sector.

But possibly the clearest signpost on our future investment journey came from National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris in his opening key note speech at Highways UK. 'Discussions are ongoing,' Mr Harris said. 'But we look to a future with increasing demand on our transport systems and an aging set of assets.' He continued. 'Our priority is improving the current road network to support the growth of the country.' 'Less roadbuilding, more rebuilding.'

Days later this sentiment was echoed by a Transport Select Committee report, which argues that investment in RIS3 should be prioritised around renewal and maintenance. The challenge here is that we get a blend of the emotive and the factual. Many populating the committee come from constituencies bemoaning the state of our roads due to potholes. And the media leapt on the report with this lens, rather than the less enticing story that explains that RIS3 is focussed on the strategic road network.

But when we are on an electioneering runway, the blurring of these boundaries seems to prove useful, if necessary infrastructure spend can be seen to be resolving emotive issues for the voting public.

Ultimately when you look across the asset base of our roads sector, many in the industry will agree that we do have many aging assets that warrant priority repair and renewal. Does that mean the end of major projects? Logic would argue far from it, as many of these renewal projects will not be simple or small scale.

And for the wider strategic approach to RIS3, we can expect a greater emphasis on shaping priorities based on regional insights, delivering in collaboration with partners like the sub-national transport bodies. This is a theme that has been taking shape across the transport sector, in the rail space as well. A welcome nod towards a more joined up and strategic approach to transport planning as a whole.

For a sector that has long proven it's resilience, capability to innovate and collaborate, whatever the funding and delivery destination, the highways sector will rise to the challenge.