The UK government published on 28 October its plans for oversight of a reformed Highway’s Agency, confirming not only that the model of rail regulation and consumer representation would be replicated, but it will expand the roles of the same bodies to also monitor the performance standards of the road network. 

The reform of the Highways Agency and introduction of the Infrastructure Bill, which was introduced in Parliament earlier this year, is designed to help implement its commitment to spend £30 to £50 billion to improve our roads the next 15 years.

This includes investment of £24 billion in national roads, a trebling of previous investment, by 2020, to ensure ‘long term certainty in unlocking economic growth’.

Costs savings and making Highways Agency more accountable

Under government plans the Highways Agency will be changed to a government-owned company responsible for over 4,300 miles of motorways and major roads – giving the agency more flexibility to manage the road network on a daily basis.

The changes to the Highways Agency will, according to the government, save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years and will make the new company more accountable to Parliament and road users.

Two new bodies will hold the new agency to account for road users, taxpayers and government.

Two bodies to scrutinise the operation of the Road Network

As part of the reforms to the Highways Agency and the Strategic Roads Network, introduced as part of its Infrastructure Bill, the Government has announced that it intends to create two bodies to scrutinise the operation of the Strategic Road Network and provide advice to the Secretary of State.

A ‘Watchdog’ responsible for gathering the views of Strategic Road Network users and using them to shape policy and decision-making. This function will be carried out by Transport Focus – a restructured and renamed Passenger Focus, incorporating a dedicated Strategic Roads Network element (Transport Focus – Road Users).A ‘Monitor’ that analyses the performance and efficiency of the new strategic highways company (SHC), checking to see that the SHC is complying with the terms of its licence and delivering what is required under the Road Investment Strategy. This function will be carried out by the Strategic Road Network Monitor (SRNM), a unit which sits as a semi-autonomous part of the Office of Rail Regulation and which will work solely on roads.

The document states that both bodies will be independent of government, and will provide ‘strong advice to the Secretary of State that genuinely reflects experience on the ground’.

‘They will also act as an important channel through which key stakeholders can help to hold the SHC to account. The reports of both bodies will be published to add an unprecedented level of transparency to the operation of the Strategic Road Network. The monitor will also be able use new statutory powers to hold the SHC directly to account, like the regulators in other sectors. Taken together these measures will have involve a step change on both efficiency and accountability.’

The new road monitor, run by the Office of Rail Regulation(ORR), will have powers to issue fines, to make sure that the new highways company delivers what it has promised and honours the conditions of its licence.

User champion Passenger Focus, which represents bus, coach and tram passengers and has worked for rail passengers for more than 60 years, will in future represent users of the strategic road network. This includes motorists and business users, as well as cyclists and walkers. This will involve major annual surveys, as well as research into road users’ top problems.

To reflect this new remit, the organisation has announced it will change its name to Transport Focus, with its existing work carried out by ‘Transport Focus – passengers’, and its new work under ‘Transport Focus – road users’.

Changes also being introduced as amendments to the bill include the power for the ORR to carry out independent enforcement activity if the highways company fails to deliver and new powers expanding the remit of Transport Focus.

Both bodies will be awarded more funding and will expand their operations so their existing work will not be affected.