Budget 2016: further fillip for roads

George Osborne's Budget has reafirmed a positive long term outlook for the roads sector, albeit one dominated by the North and projects already known about, such as further upgrades to the M62, a Trans-Pennine tunnel and the 'Northern Trans-Pennine' A66/A69 corridor. These schemes have been announced before as part of the overall work being done to develop the next Roads Investment Strategy 2 from 2021.

Osborne's infrastructure announcements contained plenty of good news for consultants in the highways market, including an additional £161M for Highways England to accelerate development of two Smart Motorway schemes on the M62 and capacity enhancements on the M1 between Rotherham and Wakefield.

A significant amount of new feasibility study work is on offer for the sector to bid for, including four major road upgrade schemes in the Midlands, on the M1, A46,  A45 and M42/M5 around Birmingham. Government has allocated £75m for development of the big schemes in the north including the Trans-Pennine routes and the M60 north west quadrant.

There is the big caveat that the trumpeting of scheme studies does not mean they will get built in any given time-frame. Mouchel Consulting has carried out the initial scoping study for the Trans-Pennine Tunnel. Today's announcement means funding for a full scale exploration of options and route assessment, said Mouchel's managing director for highways and transport, Jeremy Wray. 

“The challenge is likely to be about best return on investment for the collective Northern Powerhouse, as even with schemes of this scale, it is hard to identify projects that deliver equitable value for the whole of the northern region. In reality we face nationwide capacity issues, which would create more than enough demand for parallel connectivity improvements, not to mention the issue of phasing and the very different likely timings of delivery of the two big Trans-Pennine projects.”

New technology features strongly in Osborne's announcements on roads infrastructure. HGV platooning is to be piloted somewhere on the strategic road network. Driverless vehicle trials will continue further and a connected vehicle corridor will be developed in the south east between London and Dover.

"It's great to see government support from a Budget putting money behind intelligent mobility," said Atkins' MD for transportation Philip Hoare. "It's also very good to get a pro infrastructure budget, with some degree of pull-forward of spending and for the long term with schemes identified and money attached. Repeated reference to the National Infrastructure Commission shows government is taking the NIC seriously."

Osborne had some good news for the local authority roads market, with Highways Challenge Fund opportunities coming forward for road maintenance and an invite for bids for the Local Majors Fund for large projects.

Local road maintenance was largely ignored, regarded less important in the agenda of investing for stimulating the economy. This showed a lack of joined up thinking, said the chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association, Howard Robinson.

“Behind the headlines of frozen fuel tax, a four-lane M62 and the greenlight to Crossrail 2, is an inability to understand that access to these high-profile infrastructure projects is via a poorly maintained, potholed local road network.

"Local highway authorities do not have the funding they need to carry out both necessary emergency repairs and planned long-term maintenance. Against this, the Chancellor has today announced the allocation of a derisory £50 million Pothole Action Fund for England in 2016-17. The upkeep of our local road network where 90% of all journeys are made is surely worth better recognition and funding.”