Future of Roads | How does the industry react to National Highways’ RIS3 proposals?
National Highways wants the government’s next road strategy for England to focus on maintaining the existing network while building some large, deferred schemes.
Since 2015, the government and National Highways have set out their investment plans through five year Road Investment Strategies (RISs). They have been an opportunity to announce new road projects or “enhancements”. But RIS3 – covering the period between 2025 and 2030 – is expected to predominantly include plans for making the most of existing infrastructure.
In May, National Highways published its Strategic Road Network Initial Report to advise the government on the needs of the 6,920km of motorways and major A-roads that make up the strategic road network (SRN). Among the recommendations is a call to carry over larger projects like the £9bn Lower Thames Crossing from RIS2 into RIS3.
DfT’s eight week consultation on the report which will shape RIS3, closed on 13 July. It is currently preparing its response to the consultation feedback and will feed this into RIS3 which is due to be published next year.
The report reveals a switch in National Highways’ priorities from new construction to repairs and maintenance.
This has been welcomed by many in the construction and transport sectors as a sign the roads operator has listened to concerns that RIS1 and RIS2 were too ambitious and costly.
Yet some argue that RIS3 could still be over ambitious as it will contain large schemes deferred from RIS2.
The fact that these schemes will not be carried out in RIS2 was made known in March, when the DfT announced that they will be delayed by several years due to inflationary pressures.
With costs rising, there is disagreement about whether huge new roads like the Lower Thames Crossing should go ahead or whether they should be reviewed first, as recommended last November by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO).
Most of England’s motorways were built in the 1960s and 1970s and 72% of the network’s structures will be over 45 years old by 2025, according to the Strategic Road Network Initial Report. It explains that the age of this infrastructure is a key challenge facing the network, exacerbated by historic underinvestment and a series of short term fixes.
National Highways’ proposal for RIS3 is an increased focus on smaller, local congestion-busting and safety schemes, valued between £2M and £25M. These will focus on improvements to slip roads and junctions connecting to local roads.
The report also recommends that the government support the installation on the strategic roads network of around 2,500 open access rapid charge points for electric vehicles by 2030.
It also says that money should be spent on giving road users more real time information about congestion, ongoing incidents, planned roadworks and the availability of electric vehicle charging points.
The expected focus on repairs and maintenance in RIS3 has the support of House of Commons transport select committee chair Iain Stewart.
The committee published a report in July criticising the “overspending and under delivery” records of National Highways and the DfT.
Stewart said: “We’re not against new projects, but we want to see a greater focus on renewals and maintenance.
“If you look at the conditions of the road network, both the actual road infrastructure – its asphalt and bridges – and its technology such as overhead gantries, a lot of that is coming to the end of its planned life and will need replacing.”
The ICE, the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) also support the shift in emphasis.
“It is right for RIS3 to plan for investment in maintaining and renewing the existing network as a top priority, not least because of the growing risks from climate change to ageing assets,” said an NIC spokesperson.
ICE head of policy David Hawkes said it was clear that National Highways had learned from previous experience, adding: “The strategic road network is ageing and it’s positive that it [National Highways] has taken a step more towards maintenance and renewal rather than beginning vast numbers of new programmes.”
While no new major projects were recommended for RIS3, there could still be “targeted enhancements”, including existing schemes carried forward from RIS2.
“A large part of our improvement portfolio for the third road period is likely to consist of schemes which we have already committed to deliver,” National Highways’ Strategic Road Network Initial Report states.
The report namechecks the Lower Thames Crossing linking Essex and Kent via a 4.1km tunnel under the Thames Estuary.
Yet in March, the start of construction was pushed back by two years due to “inflationary pressure”.
In July, Skanska won the £460M contract to build of the southern part of the route connecting the A2/M2 with the tunnel approach. This was the second contract awarded, as in January Balfour Beatty won the £1.2bn Roads North of the Thames contract. The third major Lower Thames Crossing contract for tunnels and approaches is expected to be awarded later this year.
Another previously committed project is the £1.7bn Stonehenge Tunnel. It was granted a development consent order (DCO) in 2020, but this was overturned by the courts. In July, transport secretary Mark Harper issued another DCO for the scheme, yet there are still questions about whether it will go ahead. Campaigners are preparing another legal challenge to the project.
In February, top civil servants at the DfT warned there would be “limited headroom” for new road projects in RIS3 with many large schemes likely to be delayed until 2030 or beyond.
Amid rising costs and delays, the NAO has recommended that the government cancel or scale back these projects, while Stewart has urged the government to reconsider the viability of expensive enhancements.
In its response to the RIS3 consultation, the CIHT encouraged National Highways to review its major schemes and expressed concern that carrying over projects from RIS1 and RIS2 could impair National Highways’ ability to deliver its other priorities.
Yet sub-national transport bodies Midlands Connect and Transport for North (TfN) are calling for the delivery of already committed enhancements.
In its consultation response, TfN argued the strategic roads network has a pivotal role in enabling new housing developments and creating jobs and voiced “significant concerns” about funding delays for the RIS3 project pipeline.
“The issues that led to identification of the pipeline schemes still exist and it is important that work progresses considering a full range of multi-modal options for improving the performance of the strategic road network at these locations,” TfN said.
“Failure to do so will undermine investor confidence, stymie planned development and undermine government policy on achieving economic growth and ‘levelling up’ of communities in the North.”
Midlands Connect, which represents the Midlands from Lincolnshire to Shropshire, also recently expressed concern about the government’s failure to progress projects included in RISs.
Midlands Connect chief executive Maria Machancoses told the transport select committee that including a scheme in an RIS is “no longer a guarantee of delivery” leading to uncertainty for investors, companies and housing developers that is “absolutely no good for the country”.
Machancoses also said that sub-national transport bodies have no say in the development of a new RIS. The transport select committee’s report recommends that National Highways’ licence is updated to include a formalised sub-national transport body engagement process.
Others are calling for a more radical stance. In June, the Committee on Climate Change urged the rest of the UK to follow the example set by Wales and halt road building schemes to cut pollution.
Echoing this, environmental campaign group the Transport Action Network has called for “an independent review of all road building”, arguing that RIS3 will carry over RIS2 schemes which were designed for a different era.
“At a time when Europe is burning we need a least regrets approach to investment in infrastructure to make sure we are properly prepared for the future,” a Transport Action Network spokesperson added.
According to Hawkes, these big debates underline England’s need to develop a national transport strategy, rather than relying on short term five year investment cycles.
The ICE is calling for a national sustainable transport strategy to bring England in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all already have their own. Stewart says the ICE’s proposal will feed into the transport select committee’s forthcoming investigation of the country’s transport needs.
Any new strategy should be UK-wide, Stewart argues, pointing to the recent Union Connectivity Review by Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy which singles out roads of “critical importance” such as the A75 in Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland.
“Primarily it will be a freight corridor from Northern Ireland into Scotland and then into the strategic roads network in England,” says Stewart.
The NIC has also called on the DfT to use RIS3 as the first step towards a longer term interurban transport strategy.
“That’s our big message for the RIS3,” explains NIC assistant director Greg McClymont. “Of course, get on and deliver the stuff you’ve got in your pipeline for the next five years. But you also need to fit that into a longer term, wider vision.”
Government officials are now analysing responses to the Strategic Road Network Initial Report consultation and will then propose a response to ministers. The DfT said it will publish the government’s response in “due course”.
Publication of the RIS3 next year will show whether feedback from the public consultation on the Strategic Road Network Initial Report has triggered changes to initial proposals.
“We remain fully committed to maintaining and improving roads across the country. The RIS is transforming our road network and helping grow the economy,” a DfT spokesperson said.
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