May I let you into a secret? During my time in industry as a civil engineering student I had a small hand in designing and building bypasses. That was back in the late 1980s, coincident with the 'Roads for Prosperity' white paper. I wonder what that young, long-haired Glenn, rocking along to his cherished 'Ace of Spades' album, would have made of his future self – partnered up with sometime biker and former Roads Director General at the Department for Transport, Steve Gooding, convening a group of senior professionals to cast a critical eye over the future of road investment?
Today the Road Investment Scrutiny Panel, thanks to a grant from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, has published its report, which takes a constructively challenging look at the future of road spending. It is no coincidence that our report has been produced at a key moment for road investment, across the country. While we do not confine our attention to the strategic road network in England, the fact is that the third Road Investment Strategy is under development (and the Transport Committee has an Inquiry currently receiving evidence accordingly). The National Networks National Policy Statement is under review. The climate and nature emergencies loom large and Government is having its feet held to the fire by the judicial system when it comes to the compatibility of certain road projects with the legally binding obligation to reach a Net Zero economy. The pandemic has sent a shockwave through how society goes about its business. Financial pressures for Government are considerable. Interesting times, you might say.
Roads do not merely serve society. They support and they shape society with substantial environmental, social and economic consequences. In terms of coverage, we have an extensive road network – just shy of a quarter of a million miles-worth GB-wide. We should rightly expect decisions on road investment and expenditure concerning such a hugely valuable national asset to be weighed carefully and be based upon sound and transparent analysis. To that end our Panel identified a number of matters that gave cause for concern and set out what it would take to address them – in the interests of consistent, robust and effective road investment and expenditure decisions in a changing world.
In our report we set out the following seven key questions:
1. What would make us feel confident that decisions on future road investment, at both the scheme and aggregate level, are consistent with the legal obligation to deliver a credible pathway to the decarbonisation of the UK economy by 2050?
2. What would make us feel confident that the policy imperative and opportunities to promote biodiversity enhancement are being recognised and pursued on their own merits, as opposed to biodiversity being 'accommodated' in pursuit of other goals?
3. How can we be persuaded that the health and social impacts of road spending experienced by individual people and communities are well understood and given sufficient weight at all stages of decision-making?
4. What would give us confidence that appropriate financial provision is being made for operating, maintaining and optimising the performance of the existing road network?
5. What would persuade us that options for investing in improving road safety are being identified and weighed appropriately?
6. What would persuade us that road investment and expenditure decisions - at the scheme and programme level - are the result of serious consideration of a genuinely broad range of options and their merits?
7. What would persuade us that road investment and expenditure decisions are likely to represent value for money over the long term?
Challenging and in some senses troubling questions, it's true, but we also see and signpost ways of answering these questions – ways we believe, if not addressed now, could prove to be a missed opportunity. Indeed, we believe time could ultimately be saved, rather than lost, by engaging rapidly with the questions we have identified, consistent with the government's desire to make progress and with the statutory timescale for completing the third Road Investment Strategy.
Spending on road capacity enhancement is particularly contentious and headline grabbing. Latest national road traffic projections all point to road traffic growth. Yet growth, and accommodating it, may very well run counter to an acceptable pathway to decarbonisation of the economy if the decarbonisation of road vehicles isn't fast enough. We recommend that there should be a clear and accountable position on what change in road traffic level is necessary or prudent to be on an acceptable decarbonisation pathway, and on how that change can be achieved, in the light of which the implications of capacity enhancing road schemes can swiftly be assessed.
Though our individual voices are strong and heartfelt, we speak with one voice through our report. We are united in our concerns. Our panel, ably supported by Andrew Crudgington as Secretary, comprised Professors Jillian Anable, Nicola Christie, Zoe Davies, Stephen Glaister, Steve Gooding, Phil Goodwin, Karen Lucas and myself. Are we, as Lemmy might have said, 'the road crew'? We'll let you be the judges of that once you've had a chance to read what we have to say.
[For the unacquainted, Motorhead (with lead singer Lemmy Kilmister) released its Album 'Ace of Spaces' in 1980 including the track '(We Are) the Road Crew'.]