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Transport committee ‘not convinced’ by Highways Agency reform

The transport committee has said it is “not convinced” the Highways Agency should be turned into a government-owned company.

In its Better roads: Improving England’s Strategic Road Network report, the select committee said five-year funding plans could be implemented through better management of the HA in its current form.

If the agency is established as a GoCo, MPs said: “Its remit will not be extended; it will not have new funding streams; and it will still be subject to changes in government policy, while incurring ongoing oversight costs.”

The Department for Transport last week confirmed it would seek to bring the new government-owned agency into operation in April 2015, ahead of next May’s general election.

The report was published after an inquiry by the transport committee launched last September, following the publication of the DfT’s Action for Roads paper, which set out proposals for roads policy to 2021.

The committee also recommended that a scrutiny body with the power of a full regulatory authority would be needed to monitor the performance of the proposed HA GoCo.

It said an advisory or oversight body reporting to the transport secretary would not be sufficient to scrutinise the agency’s performance, but added that an expanded Office of Rail Regulation could undertake that responsibility.

Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner said the proposals for roads reform, including establishing the new GoCo, would “deliver greater efficiencies in the way the Highways Agency manages the strategic road network by offering certainty of investment and stability in the sector”.

Mr Reisner said: “These proposals will give suppliers the confidence to plan ahead, to invest in developing a workforce, and to drive better value through the ability to put in place long-term contracts.

“It is vital that the confidence the industry has gained to date is not lost through any further delay in the implementation of these reforms,” he warned.

MPs also recommended that the new GoCo should set up a panel of road user stakeholders to monitor its work and establish a realistic performance specification for engagement with its stakeholders.

A DfT spokeswoman said: “We are tripling the amount of investment in our roads to over £3bn a year and will spend £28bn up to 2021.

“Our reforms to the Highways Agency will make sure this money is spent efficiently by introducing long-term funding and independent scrutiny.”

Better roads conclusions and recommendations:

  • The DfT must open the National Transport Model to wider scrutiny.
  • It must develop a transparent system of road planning as part of a wider national transport strategy, taking into account demographic, economic and land use changes.
  • The DfT should commission integrated passenger and freight plans for strategic transport routes or regions, rather than looking at one mode of transport in isolation.
    Plans should be developed in consultation with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and road user groups, and the DfT must identify projects, including maintenance schemes, within the chosen plan for implementation within the five-year funding cycle.
  • The government will need to increase investment in the road network substantially over the next decade and it will require new funding streams.
    However, a consensus would be required to introduce any road user-charging scheme across the strategic road network as an alternative to road taxation.
  • The government must demonstrate an integrated transport approach in developing and assessing improvements to strategic routes.
    It must always consider how road and rail improvements for passengers and freight can play a role together to solve problems on the strategic road network and feeder roads.

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