On Monday, the House of Commons held the Second Reading of the Infrastructure Bill. It is described as a ‘portmanteau Bill’ as it covers a wide range of different topics. However, as strategic road infrastructure – one of the Bill’ primary concerns – is very important to North-East Hertfordshire, I would like to explain what effects this Bill will have on our major roads.
The upkeep and improvement of our highways is central to keeping Hertfordshire as economically successful as it is now. Our highways link us to London, to Stanstead and Luton airports, and to the soon-to-be “Northern Powerhouse”. However, the Highways Agency is unable to manage our roads as effectively as we need, and, over the last 20 years, we have seen a major underfunding and mismanagement of our roads.
The highways managed by the Highways Agency account for only 2% of all roads in England by length, but they carry a third of all traffic by mileage, and two thirds of all heavy goods traffic. As the Highways Agency itself says, these roads are the “economic backbone of the country”. They must be well-managed. The railways have long undergone long-term, five-year investment plans, but the roads have not. This Bill will bring long-term planning to our road network.
The provisions in Part 1 of the Bill would transform the Highways Agency from an agency of the Department for Transport into a government-owned Strategic Highways Company. This will allow for a much more long-term and business-like approach to the management of our roads. One point in particular struck me: the current arrangements force the Highways Agency to follow government budget rules, which prevent unspent budgets being carried over to the next year. This compels the Highways Agency to spend for the sake of spending in February and March in order to prevent budget cuts in the next financial year, and it does not allow for the Agency to “save-up” for major investments in a few years’ time. The House must surely see that this is not how something as important to our country as its strategic road network should be managed.
Government rules are made for administrators, but the body that controls our truck roads cannot simply be an administrator. In order to provide the roads that this country needs, it must have the vision, imagination, and the resources to manage a long-term, cost-effective, and successful roads programme. This greater level of independence from government guidelines can provide this.
However, although the Highways Agency must, in one way, be given more independence from government, in another way it must be made more accountable to it. The provisions for Road Investment Strategies will allow for just this. Binding directives for long-term targets from the Transport Secretary will make the running of our highways more accountable to the representatives of the British people, but will allow for greater day-to-day autonomy and flexibility in the execution of these directives.
In the Government’s first Road Investment Strategy – published last week – Hertfordshire was granted funding for the widening of the A1(M) from Welwyn to Stevenage, following a long campaign on the matter from me and other Hertfordshire MPs. This will allow the A1(M) to flow much more freely, and make it easier for workers to get to their employment, get their products to the market, and life will also be made easier for local residents.
One of the main reasons why we managed to win this funding was the state of Junction 7. The A1(M) is known for its long queues and tailback every morning and evening, and Junction 7 is one of the worst areas for this problem, and has been so for 25 years. Junction 7 is also the junction for the Stevenage industrial area, which is the home to major companies like GSK. Research done by the Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce which found that a number of businesses in and around Stevenage had suggested that if their access to Stevenage was not remedied, then this might prompt their relocation. This, of course would be a terrible blow to a county which provides an annual net contribution to the UK of £4 billion and is one of the powerhouses of the British economy.
This illustrates the importance of long-term planning for our trunk roads, and the improvements to our ability to do this is one of my primary reasons for supporting this Bill. To change the Highways Agency in to a government-owned Strategic Highways Company, directed by Road Investment Strategies, will allow problems to be dealt with much faster than the quarter of a century that this one has taken. This Government’s first Road Investment Strategy is a huge investment that is greatly needed.
I am also heartened by the provisions of Section 3 which commit the Secretary of State and the Strategic Highways Company to take account of the environmental and road-safety issues when drawing up and executing a Road Investment Strategy. Britain has some of the safest roads in the world, but anything to ensure that the safety of the British people on their roads remains a central concern in roads planning is very welcome. As for the environment, with the current state of the chalk streams in my constituency, I am all too aware of the damage that human activity can have on local wildlife, and I am glad that this Bill will ensure that future road investment is implemented with full sensitivity to local nature.
As a country, our infrastructure must be able to keep up with increases in population and international competition. If we do not, then we fall behind in the global race. As the rest of Europe – our main market – suffers economic decline, this task becomes ever more difficult, and so it becomes ever more vital that we have a world-class road network. Two-thirds of all our heavy goods traffic runs on these roads, and it is imperative that they can get their workers in, and their products out, as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible.
This Bill gives the people who manage our strategic highways greater autonomy, flexibility, and day-to-day freedom to carry out their duties. It gives the representatives of the British people a greater level of control over the targets and priorities of our highways. It gives road safety and environmental issues a higher level of importance than ever before. It gives the British people themselves a greater level of influence over the administration of their roads, and it holds the Strategic Roads Company accountable to an external assessor.
It passed the vote 276-10, and now goes to a Committee for line-by-line scrutiny.
This Bill represents a real advance in the way our most important roads are managed, and I am happy to support it.