Copper returned to Highways UK once again this year for two days of compelling conversations, our Copper hosted dinner with CECA CEO speaker, and a new JCB tote bag.
Given that the highways sector finds itself at something of a crossroads (pardon the pun), it was interesting to see an event packed to the rafters with tier 1 and wider supply chain partners, bigger than before, and expressing general confidence in the sector at large, if lacking clarity about the shape and form that RIS3/future investment may take.
With a general election on the horizon, recent radical announcements about transport investment, the introduction of ‘Network North’, Labour party conference declarations, and the second National Infrastructure Assessment launched on Day One of Highways UK, it’s no wonder that those attending did so with one thing on their minds…
…money. More specifically, where will it be spent?
It was a question addressed by National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris in his opening key note speech, although he was apologetic that he couldn’t give any detail until RIS3 officially lands.
‘Our priority is improving the current road network to support the growth of the country.’ Mr Harris said. ‘Less roadbuilding, more rebuilding.’
‘Discussions are ongoing,’ He continued. ‘But we look to a future with increasing demand on our transport systems and an aging set of assets.’
A theme that would be repeated time and time again over the next two days.
‘We can’t just keep adding capacity,’ agreed Department For Transport’s Director General Emma Ward, who joined Mr Harris on stage. ‘We need to optimise what we have by looking after our existing assets.”
With around 40 million vehicles in the UK, the growing volume of traffic is placing greater demands on our roads. The majority of which were built in the 60s and 70s and intended for a very different pace of life. Concrete was durable and low cost but now those roads need replacing and repairing.
Multimodal transport is of course one way to reduce vehicle numbers. But to attract people away from their cars, there first needs to be a cost effective and convenient alternative.
‘We need to work with network rail, subnational transport bodies and local authorities to make improvements so people can move from one mode of transport to another.’ Concluded Mr Harris.
Next up on stage was Minister for Roads and Local Transport, Richard Holden MP, who declared that roads were the country’s most important economic asset. He used his 15 minutes to unpack and reiterate the narrative recently published in Network North to ‘benefit more people, more places, more quickly,’ citing the government’s recent shift in investment away from the northern leg of HS2 to achieve this.
Mr Holden echoed the need to keep our national asset ‘fit for the future’. The Conservatives will achieve this by ‘embracing new technologies; radically improving travel between and within towns, cities and villages; and prioritising the modes of transport that matter most to people’.
The future looks bright then for resurfacing, signalling and potholes. And be warned, if you don’t have a lane rental scheme, he’s going to be talking to you.
‘The priority is for local authorities to guide on what’s needed – to give certainty to the supply chain.’ Said Mr Holden.
The spotlight on spending continued on Day Two, with Shadow Transport Minister Bill Esterson MP providing a glimpse of the Labour Party’s priorities, should they be elected next year.
While the topics covered in his keynote speech were wide ranging, including vehicle manufacture, road surfacing, integrated transport networks and electric vehicles, there was a notable lack of depth which suggested no clearly defined strategy is yet in place.
During the Q&A that followed, however, Mr Esterson started to expand on his opening statements and expressed a desire to work with the industry to better understand its needs and challenges.
Most interesting was Mr Esterson’s repeat of Labour’s intention to review all CapEx schemes if elected into power, to ascertain whether they truly stack up.
There was also mention of HS2, with no personal declarations but a comment that it gets increasingly difficult to deliver if the Conservatives continue to sell off the land that was taken to build it.
Having heard political priorities, it was now the turn of Chief Executive James Heath from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) who provided an overview of the second National Infrastructure Assessment – a welcome read after a lack of strategic direction.
Published just 24 hours earlier, the Assessment outlines 45 recommendations to government relating to the future of transport infrastructure. The report is shaped around three big strategic challenges. How infrastructure can:
- be maintained and modernised to promote productivity and economic growth
- be used to support the transition to net zero carbon emissions,
- be used to improve climate emission and the state of the natural environment.
Summarising the 200+ pages for a packed audience, Mr Heath cited ‘two big levers’ that the UK government can pull, the first being better public policy.
‘The government needs to get faster at making decisions and commit to them long-term.’ Said Mr Heath. ‘We need to remove the barriers to rolling out infrastructure quickly…and devolve more power and funding to local leaders and communities who are often better placed to get things done.’
The second ‘big leaver’ is how we can procure sustained investment. Mr Heath described funding stability as the ‘cornerstone of effective economic planning’ with a recommendation to Government that funding for Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) 3 should match RIS2, increasing beyond that in the future.
Collaboration with subnational transport bodies was also highlighted as a key consideration with Mr Heath stating, ‘A coordinated approach is needed ahead of RIS4 in 2026’.
There’s a clear need for an integrated transport strategy that supports regional economic growth, the priority of which needs to be better maintained networks with a focus on renewing and repairing ageing transport assets.
This is perhaps the biggest takeaway message from Highways UK 2023.
So, we now have priorities and potential ingredients for an investment roadmap, an impending King’s Speech on 7 November, the Autumn Budget on 22 November, and RIS3 due to land, which will shed more light. But with 12 months of electioneering ahead, which direction we ultimately take will depend on who takes power.