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Highways England publishes £11bn five-year business plan ahead of 1 April launch

Out-Law News | 30 Mar 2015 | 12:20 pm | 2 min. read

Highways England, the government-owned company which will replace the Highways Agency on 1 April, will deliver "the biggest investment in major roads since the 1970s", its chief executive has said.

The new company has published its first business plan, setting out how it plans to invest its £11 billion budget over its first five years of operation. Highways England will be responsible for the construction and maintenance of England's strategic road network, which is made up of approximately 4,300 miles of motorways and major trunk roads.

Infrastructure law expert Jon Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the plan was not so much an indication of upcoming developments, many of which had already been announced; but more an indication of the way that the new company would operate.

"This is an important first step in bringing Highways England into operation using the 'regulated asset base' model used by other entities such as Network Rail or the utilities, with specified outputs and a five-year spending 'control period'," he said. "The challenge will be that the regulatory framework which will accompany this is, at best, still a work under construction."

The Highways Agency is currently an executive agency which is part of the government's Department for Transport (DfT). Its conversion to an arms-length company is intended to make it more accountable to parliament and to road users, and to give it budget certainty over the long term. The new Highways England will be held to account by a strategic roads network monitor, operated by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which will publish information on its performance and have the power to take action if it does not comply with the conditions of its licence. Transport Focus will oversee the new company on behalf of road users.

The delivery plan shows how the success of Highways England will be measured against a performance specification set by the government, and how the organisation will be transformed to perform more efficiently against five strategic outcomes. These are supporting economic growth; and delivering a safe and serviceable network, a more free-flowing network, an improved environment and a more accessible and integrated network.

The improvements Highways England intends to carry out over its first five years of operation include 112 major road improvements, the delivery of new cycling facilities and crossings and a 40% reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured on the network. It intends to upgrade the busiest 'A' roads, or expressways, to provide similar standards as on the motorways; keep at least 97% of the road network open during improvement and maintenance work; and trial new technologies such as acoustic tunnel incident detection systems, on the roads.

The remaining 183,000 miles of English roads that do not form part of the strategic road network are maintained by 152 local highways authorities. Data published this week by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), which conducts an annual local authority road maintenance (ALARM) survey, showed that one in six of these roads remained in poor condition despite an increase in central government funding for pothole and flood repair following last year's wet winter.

"ALARM's new data provides confirmation of what many motorists are well aware: that the condition of our roads has deteriorated, is deteriorating and will continue to deteriorate," said infrastructure expert Jon Hart.

"There have been some sensible initiatives proposed over the last year. These have included the DfT's HMEP [Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme] and local authorities' opportunity to bid for pockets of additional funding from the centre. Even so, with increased pressure on council budgets - which is set to get worse after the election, irrespective of outcomes - it is hard to see any improvement in the overall picture in the near future," he said.