Auditors urge Highways England rethink

Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group

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Published: 3rd April 2017

This Article was Written by: Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group


Major road projects could go under the knife because David Cameron started them too soon.

Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy has been branded ‘unrealistic’ and lacks the logistics to deliver. This is according to an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO are now calling on the government to take ‘decisive action’ to sort out the situation as quickly as possible. In order to prevent jeopardising future infrastructure projects. The Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England (HE) have identified 16 projects that could face cancellation in the coming months. Whether or not they offer value for money will be the deciding factor in the future of the projects.

Prior to the General Election in 2015, the government allocated £11.4bn for the improvement of motorways and A-roads across the UK. At the time Cameron hailed it the ‘biggest, boldest and most far-reaching road improvement programme’ for almost half a century.

NAO claim the Road Investment Strategy was rushed so it could be published before the General Election and that the result of such haste was poor judgement. Of the 112 projects earmarked for the period 2015-2020, 54 were only due to start in the final 12 months and few were proven to offer value for money.

Projects varied but many were branded ‘enhancement projects’ designed to improve the traveller experience – by promoting cycle routes and improving air quality, for example.

The audacious Stonehenge tunnel project, plans to upgrade parts of the M1 to a ‘smart motorway’ and improvements to the roads around Stansted Airport could all either be delayed or cancelled completely.

Although several projects have already been completed ahead of time DfT have forecast an overspend in the region of £841m. The enhancement projects, a whopping £7.7bn of the total budget, are now under scrutiny with NAO urging priority be given to essential improvement and maintenance of the existing road network only.

Although HE routinely overestimate budgetary spend, in the expectation that some projects never reach fruition, NAO believe the Road Infrastructure Strategy is still headed for a massive overspend.

Chief of the NAO, Amyas Morse said: “The Department and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if they are to provide optimal value from the Road Investment Strategy.

“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 five-year road investment period. 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.”

As well as financial issues, NAO claim HE also face difficulties in providing the manpower and equipment to undertake the scheme of works planned.

So far HE have only needed to recruit extra staff for 6 projects but intends to grow its workforce through contracting for 57 projects in 2017. Already lagging behind in certain roles, for example procurement specialist roles, it is having to employ temporary staff costing three times the going rate.

HE has identified 16 projects posing a risk to value for money. In collaboration with the DfT it will now examine the individual projects to see if it can identify ways they can be made more efficient. It will also critically examine the possibility of bringing forward a number of projects, to ease the pressure on the 2019-20 period. It may also consider postponing up to 19 projects entirely.

Morse added: “While this may mean that some stakeholder expectations are not met, value for money depends on the Department and Highways England proceeding, in this and in future road periods, with a realistic and affordable plan.”

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