As the Government publishes its objectives for the next Road Investment Strategy, we take a look at how well it compares to our vision for greener roads.
It’s been a long time coming. Last year, the Department for Transport (DfT) launched its call for evidence on the second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), then at the start of this year we had Highways England’s response and a public consultation, now the Government has published the draft Strategy.
The Budget confirmed that with the ring fencing of Vehicle Excise Duty in a new National Roads Fund, the £15 billion for RIS1 will rise to £25.3 billion for RIS2. It remains to be seen whether the end of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes for road building, and the need for Highways England to make savings within RIS1, will curtail the most damaging and costly schemes already underway.
We don’t think spending these huge amounts on just three per cent of the road network is the right priority. Instead we want to see a fix it first approach, to address the backlog of road maintenance – estimated as at least £9 billion - tackle potholes and improve poor quality roads, before committing money to building new ones.
Working with our allies, we set out clear priorities for any future roads programme. And we’re grateful to the thousands of supporters who joined us in demanding positive change. The DfT’s consultation report acknowledges the impact of our campaign: “Over 2,000 responses were received from a campaign by Campaign for Better Transport …. This expressed support for the continuation of measures to retrofit modern environmental standards to the existing road network, and for the improved maintenance of the network. However it expressed concern about the development of an Expressway standard as ‘motorways by stealth’, particularly in areas of high environmental value such as the National Parks. … the Government intends to continue investing in the ‘green retrofit’ of the Strategic Roads Network through a new generation of designated funds, and to provide sufficient funds to allow the continued good maintenance of the network. We will continue to develop thinking on how and where the concept of an Expressway can be best applied."
So how does the Government’s vision compare to ours?
- We’re concerned that small drive time savings are already being used to permit major road building in national parks, the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and other precious places. Highways England’s plans for converting A roads to motorway style expressways would have made this worse. We’re pleased to see the draft RIS is cautious about expressways, and that it talks about “taking care to incorporate the road and roadside furniture sensitively into the landscape” and upholding “the principles of the National Networks National Policy Statement relating to landscape, visual, historic environment and biodiversity impacts.” But it fails to promise any new protection from damaging road building, despite the growing concerns about many of the RIS1 plans already underway
- Green infrastructure, such as tree planting, green walls, natural drainage, can make the road network more resilient and less damaging to the environment. Our recent report Roads and the Environment shows how this can work. And thanks to your support, we’ve had an impact. One of the Government’s RIS2 priorities is “A greener network: through its use of environmentally and visually sensitive ‘green infrastructure’, and management of the verges and open spaces, good design will minimise the air, light, noise, and visual impacts of the SRN"
- Roads are bad news for wildlife: they carve up habitats, disrupt migration patterns and bring new danger. The draft RIS acknowledges “the severance effect the SRN can have for neighbourhoods and wildlife” and commits to have a designated Environment and Wellbeing fund that could be used to address this, alongside air quality, noise pollution, and risks posed to heritage assets. We’re glad to see dedicated funding for environmental projects continue in RIS2. With a greatly inflated roads budget, and a long environmental wish list, it’s vital to ensure that a fair share is allocated to help Highways England reach its 2040 biodiversity net gain target as soon as possible
- We were critical that in RIS1, noise pollution was dealt with primarily by installing double glazing or ugly noise barriers, rather than tackling the problem at source. The draft RIS says “good design will minimise the air, light, noise, and visual impacts of the SRN” and promises “high quality road surfaces” but is light on detail. Encouraging more freight onto rail, and cutting overall traffic levels would also help cut road noise, but the draft RIS is silent on that
- Cutting transport’s rising CO2 emissions is a major challenge, and converting the vehicle fleet to zero emission is part of the solution. We called for the SRN to become the spine of a fast electric charging network, as has the UK Committee on Climate Change. The draft RIS refers to “working towards decarbonising road transport and achieving a net improvement in air quality as part of the Government’s Clean Air, Clean Growth and Road to Zero strategies” but says nothing about charging points. That’s a major omission we’ll be looking to see addressed in the full RIS next year
- For too long, non-motorised users have been neglected or marginalised in roads programmes. We want to see a truly multi-modal approach for people using and crossing the SRN. The draft RIS promises that no A road “would have motorway restrictions applied until there is a good quality alternative route in place for non-motorised users and slow vehicles”. It also commits to a dedicated Users and Communities fund “to include further cycle-proofing of the network, and providing better facilities for pedestrians.” Dedicated funding is important: we’ll also be looking to see that any facilities meet the latest standards in practice
- Vital bus services are under pressure across the country, as our Chief Executive Darren Shirley recently told MPs. Budget cuts are the major threat, but congestion causing delays and unreliable services is also a growing problem. We’re working with bus operators to get a better deal for bus services on the SRN. The draft RIS says that the proposed Users and Communities fund “could also support buses and other multi-modal measures, integrating the SRN with other transport networks.” This is a welcome step in the right direction: again, how we’ll be looking to see how this works in practice.
The draft RIS sets some positive aspirations, but until the detailed RIS2 programme is published we won’t know how well these objectives are going to be delivered. The Highways England draft business plan will be out in January next year, with the final Road Investment Strategy published by the end of 2019. With your support we’ll continue to fight for a road network that is better, not bigger.