Highways England on course as Infrastructure Bill clears third reading

The Infrastructure Bill that will pave the way for Highways England has been passed in the Commons after its third reading on Monday and could get Royal Assent by early February. Secondary legislation is now needed to  create the company.

But this is being seen as a formailty and means the new arms length government organisation that will replace the Highways Agency will be launched in in April this year and the £15bn investment programme to modernise, maintain and operate England’s 6900km of major roads can begin.

First the Bill has to go back to the House of Lords where it started its passage for consideration of amendments and, once the exact wording is agreed,  it will get Royal Assent and become an law. At that point secondary legislation to create the company needs to be introduced and passed before the end of March when Parliament rises for the General Election. 

LATEST: Graham Dalton is to step down as chief executive of Highways England in the summer as a new leader is sought for the Highways England business. Full story here.

Response to the Bill's progress from the roads industry was more than positive. "This will be the biggest, single investment programme in strategic roads since the 1970s, and if that's not exciting to civil engineers I don't know what is,"  said AECOM director of roads Paul Bracegirdle in a typical reaction. "But I think the public will be excitied too. For too long they have been putting up with a road network that is degrading and that can't cope with the traffic. People will feel that government has been listening to their concerns."

Once Highways England is up and running, work will start swiftly. The recent appointment of contractors, consultants and SMEs to the collaborative delivery framework means activity to refine how to deliver the Road Investment Strategy and its 84 projects (70 of them new) in the investment period to 2021 is already underway. "Instead of 10 consultants coming up with 10 different quality plans for instance, we are working together on just one," Bracegirdle said. "We are developing qulite a lot of these templates so when we can start work, we hit the ground running. And that's critical.  The country is looking for this big investment to create jobs and to be good for the economy and that can't happen until we've done the designs."

First big scheme off the blocks will be the £1l5bn A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon project. Design contracts are due to be awarded March with a start on site 18 months later.

"Industry would have been incredibly disappointed if the Bill had not gone through. There has been so much positivity around, and so much effort has gone into working towards Highways England from the HA and Department for Transport, it would have been bad for all of us and bad for the country," Bracegirdle said. "But as it is, it is stunning news."

Highways England has not been a controversial part of the Bill but everyone following its passage was aware that it was at the mercy of other elements. The Bill's progress has been an opportunity for the Opposition to introduce amendments such as one to create a National Infrastructure Commission (see story). But the main focus for objection has been legislation to develop fracking  as a new source of energy supply for the UK.

Amendments  debated at the report stage in the Commons included calls for a complete moratorium on fracking and demands for new tighter environmental controls. The moratorium proposal follows a report from the Environmental Audit Committee which said that fracking was incompatible with carbon targets and could pose environmental and health risks. See story here.

The moratorium was soundly defeated by 308 votes to 52. But accepted were proposals led by Labour MP Tom Greatorex and others for new environmental conditions to be met before fracking could take place including making water companies statutory consultees in the planning process, the need to consult residents on an individual basis and required well by well disclosure of the frack fluid. See story here.

However the EAC's demand that fracking be prohibited in National Parks was added to the Bill - by the Government. which removed the provision that shale gas exploration would be allowed in such areas "in exceptional circumstances". Energy minister Amber Rudd told the house that there would be a complete ban on fracking "in National Parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of national beauty".

Caroline Flint MP, Labour’s Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, commenting on the Government’s decision to accept Labour’s amendment to the Infrastructure Bill to introduce new protections before fracking can go ahead, said: “This is a huge u-turn by the Government and big victory for the protection of Britain’s environment. Labour has always said that shale gas extraction cannot go ahead unless there is a system of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection."

She outlined Labour's support for fracking within the new limitations. “While eight out of 10 homes still rely on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas we currently import and improving our energy security. But that potential benefit cannot come at the expense of robust environmental protections or our climate change commitments.” 

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