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NAO calls for urgent rethink of road transformation planning

Neil Merrett Published 23 March 2017

Highways England and the Department for Transport called on to take “decisive action” by the summer to ensure better value from ongoing changes to road management and technology


Highways England and the Department for Transport are not expected to have the full capabilities and systems in place that they will need to better manage the national road network until at least 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded.

A new report from the national auditor has backed implementing an updated delivery plan for the initial phase of England’s road development strategy, which commenced in April 2015 and is due to end in March 2020, with an eye to improving understanding of Highways England’s operations.

The report recommends that both organisations should take “decisive action” by this summer at the latest to ensure optimal value from a change programme seeking to overhaul management of road investment through focuses on staffing and technology.  Highways England, which is charged with overseeing motorways and other major roads in England, has also committed itself to adopting sensor-led and other ‘smart motorways’ technologies as part of wider overhaul plans.

The strategy also considers the role of technology to manage traffic and provide up to date information to drivers.

“The first Road Investment Strategy, which covers the five years between April 2015 and March 2020, is an important step towards better long-term planning of England’s strategic road network,” stated the findings. “But the speed with which it was put together has created risks to deliverability, affordability and value for money which could be carried forward into future road investment periods.”

NAO head Amyas Morse said that a “more realistic and affordable plan” to step up efficiency during the current ongoing road development cycle was required.

“Highways England has been working to address the risks to deliverability, affordability and value for money that were present in 2015, but we are now nearly two years into the 5-year road investment period,” he said. “Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”

A second road investment period is intended to commence by April 2020, with Highways England not expected to have the required expertise it needs until this period.

In 2013, £11.4bn in funding was committed by the government to improve motorways and A-roads between 2015 and 2020 as part of a strategy put together in 17 months before the May 2015 General Election.

“As a result of this, the department selected projects without knowing whether they would be the best value and 54 of the 112 projects are currently scheduled to start in 2019/20, which could cause significant disruption to motorists,” said the NAO.

The report has also backed a review of the Department of Transport’s oversight approach to Highways England at a time when the organisation’s complexity and scale of investment projects is growing.

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