Revealed: the true size of England's core road network

A new map of England's busiest roads has been drawn up, revealing the true extent of the network of routes most important to regional and national economies. The 8,000 mile Major Road Network (MRN) includes the 4,200 mile long Strategic Road Network (SRN) managed by Highways England, plus 3,800 miles of the busiest roads under the charge of local highway authorities.

The MRN (shown in full below) has been produced as the result of a study by David Quarmby and Phil Carey for the Rees Jefferys Road Fund. The map shows how local roads form parts of strategic longer distance routes and so why they are particularly busy. It also serves as independent evidence of which local routes should be prioritised for investment to promote economic growth.

In their report, A Major Road Network for England, Quarmby and Carey argue that it should be the wider MRN that is targeted for investment from government, not just the trunk roads and motorways of the SRN.

Speaking to Infrastructure Intelligence, Quarmby said the intention is not to say that more roads should be transferred to Highways England control. Nor does the report give numbers for additional investment required for the wider MRN. But it does say that a National Road Fund could help to fund improvements to strategically important local roads. The national fund was announced by government last year, to be raised from ringfenced vehicle excise duty from 2021. At present the fund is intended for use on the SRN only.

"We have not done a lot of homework on what would be needed in total to bring the key local authority roads up to scratch, but we have estimated that if the next investment strategy for the SRN is similar in scale to the current programme, there ought to be headroom for spending a surplus of about £1.5 billion a year on local authorities' major roads," Quarmby said.

The idea of a MRN is in line with current government thinking it seems. A 'majors' fund for supporting key local authority transport improvements was announced in last year's Autumn Statement. The MRN has not been drawn up in consultation with government Ministers, but Quarmby and Carey have spoken to the Department for Transport, Treasury, local government and national and sub-national transport bodies.

"We encountered a lot of support and enthusiasm for the concept of the MRN," Quarmby said. "The network we've drawn up is not definitive or carved in stone. It's indicative as a start point for local authorities and regional transport bodies to work on."

The report does not address the additional revenue funding and skills capacity authorities would need to carry out substantial road improvements. "This is the perennial question, but upping investment in an MRN would not necessarily mean a lot more is needed. At present, there is a confusion of many different funding routes and arrangements for local roads. Given Highways England's five year commitments, local roads would benefit from greater clarity of government spending available and longer term planning, which is what we hope the MRN will promote," Quarmby said.

The timing of the release of the report and MRN "could not be better", Quarmby added. "In addition to the devolution agenda already developing and the announcement of the national road fund, we are now getting even more emphasis from government on the importance of economic development outside London," he said.

Sub-national transport bodies taking close notice include the England's Economic Heartlands Alliance. This was initially set up between Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire County Councils, but now also includes six more county and unitary authorities and the three Local Enterprise Partnerships that span the 'growth corridor' between Oxford and Cambridge.

"We've previously been pushing for greater recognition of the importance of a wider network beyond the SRN," said the Alliance's programme director Martin Tugwell. "We want to use the concept for our long term planning in partnership with Highways England, which is also clearly aware of the idea of an MRN. One of its current major studies is looking at an east-west expressway between Oxford and Cambridge.

"The MRN published today will not necessarily show the roads local authorities want to prioritise, but it's a welcome evidence based approach to demonstrating how traffic is using local roads for longer, strategic journeys, so where investment is needed. It reinforces our arguments for a strategic approach to local roads, showing how vital they are, and how important it is to have a collaborative approach between central and local government."

Click here for a copy of the Major Road Network report

MRN map