After spending almost four years working with the previous Secretary of State to shape Transport policy I have a confession to make. I have come to the conclusion that we spent, in government, far too much time working on rail policy and not enough on roads. It seemed almost as if roads were an afterthought, alongside shiny new things such as HS2.
Even though the vast majority of journeys are made by road, our governments don’t spend enough time considering how highways are used or run. There was political attention on the price of petrol, but we never managed to think about roads as a system, with income and costs and customers. Because of that, our roads are not funded as well as they could be.
There has been some progress. Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State I worked with, led the creation of Highways England, which is proving to be a real success. He created the Road Investment Strategy (RIS), with five-year funding, and a host of new start schemes on trunk roads, as well as new funding for local projects through Local Enterprise Partnerships. Both of these are important foundations for where policy might head next. We also oversaw the evolution of the Office of Rail and Road from a rail regulator to a roads and rail regulator, with Transport Focus speaking up for the users of England’s major roads.
But even with these developments, the real political energy and time still went elsewhere in the transport sector, including into Network Rail. And that is still the case.
New capital investment needs to be joined up with the equally important, but less exciting politically, business of day-to-day maintenance. We need to improve the way local roads are run, or create a national roads network of the kind some are now – rightly – advocating. And we need to think about where funding will come from in age of changing technologies and falling fossil fuel use.
That is the point of the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize. The question we are asking is: ‘How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment?’. The Prize is an original and creative way to shape UK policy and there is great interest in what we come up with from inside the Department for Transport and the Treasury.
Road users pay more than £33 billion a year in taxes, but perhaps only a third of that goes back into investment and maintenance. The pressures to change funding and operation of our highways are only going to grow and the Government needs to be able to make more sensible and responsive decisions about investment. Roads should be run to make it easier for people to travel.
The OBR forecast that fuel duty receipts could halve within the next 20 years, and even if that doesn’t happen the highways industry will need to reform to meet demands on air quality. In this context, open, new thinking and good communication with the public is essential to ensure their support for the inevitable future changes. A responsive highways industry should be shaped not just by the logical possibilities of technology or investment, but also by what the end users want and will support.
Autonomous vehicles, for instance, excite those involved in developing them but they will not succeed unless road users are actually persuaded they are a good idea and are given a good reason to use them. Likewise, new projects and road schemes risk running into environmental objections, if we don’t show that we are taking account of things such as air quality and landscape.
In this way, we may actually bring clear improvements that people want, whether that is better air quality, less noise, more capacity, economic growth and a good return on investment. So if the highways industry is going to consider more intelligent ways to use technology to manage demand and charging – and it should – then it has to communicate with people about how they can benefit from it, why they should want it.
Better explanation of where investment is going is needed. Better explanation, in particular, of what a Smart Motorway is, how it will work, what the debate about safety is, why it takes roadworks to install, why there are speed limits on what seems an open road. Without building support for Smart Motorways the present programme cannot be sustained.
The industry also needs to communicate a bigger shift in the way we will use our roads in the future – one day it will seem unimaginable that road users could just join a major road whenever they wanted, without any data communication, or fee, or that traffic jams existed. In the future, there may not be private car ownership in the way we think of it today. Maybe on motorways we will get far more capacity and reliability out of platooning.
All of this is going to take a massive shift from the days when the Treasury could count on big tax take from fuel and vehicle excise duty and gave some of it back in an uncontrolled and indirect manner to roads and the rest of transport.
We don’t yet know how that shift is going to come about, or how long it will take, but it will take explanation, persuasion and new thinking. And Britain is well-placed to show the world how to do it.