Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  460. Have you changed the way you operate?
  (Mr Matthews) We have certainly changed the way we operate and now all our managers, all our offices in the regions have very clear targets, whether in terms of the way they deliver schemes, the way in which we require them to consult environmental and other groups, or indeed our own technical expertise within the Agency, where we have developed clear environmental skills in a number of areas.

  461. You now feel able to monitor results as well. Is that what you are saying? Now you have the expertise in-house, as well as giving instructions to people carrying out the tasks out in the country?
  (Mr Matthews) Yes. Part of our role in the environmental work is to contribute advice to local authorities, whether that is to do with air pollution control or the impact of economic developments on wider environmental concerns. Part of our role is actually monitoring what we do ourselves, but it is also contributing to the local authorities' own responsibilities in this area. The other important area which the White Paper gave rise to, was the new approach to appraisal of major schemes. That again for the first time built systematic environmental appraisal and environmental impact studies into the way in which we and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions look at new road schemes, major road schemes, junction improvements and such like. The environmental assessment of new schemes as opposed to the working of the existing network is now very much systematically part of our approach.

  462. Is there now a very clear difference? Are you saying that happens right at the beginning of an assessment?
  (Mr Matthews) Yes; very much so, right from the inception of the scheme, whether that is through the initial informal consultation with environmental groups or the way in which we begin to talk to the consultants who are developing the design ideas for the scheme. Obviously the different type of environmental impact differs according to the different schemes. Yes, that thinking is now built in right from the start and is formally part of the published assessments which we have now to give as part of any scheme which goes forward.

  463. Who monitors how well you are doing that job within the Department?
  (Mr Matthews) We are subject as an agency to formal review.

  464. No, I know what you are subject to. You have just told me that this is a change in the way you operate, you are doing it from the beginning, you have also told us that you brought people in which did not happen before. All I am asking is: who monitors how you do it?
  (Mr Matthews) We are monitored on all of our targets by the Department of the Environment.

Mr O'Brien

  465. Having regard to the fact that some of these schemes from advice, to planning, could be eight or ten years ago and in view of the fact that the Government are now improving the standards which were set eight or ten years ago, how often do you update the information on new road works or bypasses?
  (Mr Matthews) In terms of environmental impact, we would not do that systematically. What we do as part of scheme development is assess environmental impact as part of our ongoing targets for environment. They would be the ones which would generally pick up any environmental issues on the existing network.

  466. Who decides which schemes should be looked at, in view of the fact that you are saying you do not do them generally but you pick out some of the impacts. Who chooses?
  (Mr Matthews) We have targets in relation to proportions of the network which means that environmental assessments will cover all of the network within a given period of two to three years.

  467. May I go back to your first point? You were saying that when you are contemplating a scheme, a bypass, you research it, you accept advice and you collect information and that could be eight or ten years ago. What I am saying is that if you are going to start the scheme now, within the next 12 months or two years, what about updating the impact assessment of that new road on the environment of communities and local areas? Do you update it?
  (Mr Matthews) If the formal environmental impact assessment had been done as part of the statutory consultation, inquiry process, we would not formally update that.


  468. But they were not automatically built in. I think the point Mr O'Brien was making was a simple one. If you have a long programme and the work was done some time ago, do you look again at what work was done and if needs be update it in light of your new environmental targets?
  (Mr Matthews) We would only update it if there had been a significant change in the nature of the scheme.

Mr O'Brien

  469. May I put the point to you that in the past three years local authorities have now been charged with monitoring environment levels along motorways in their area? If it applies to local government, why does it not apply to the Agency?
  (Mr Matthews) We do that as part of our ongoing targets.

  470. That is when the road is built. I am talking about doing it before the road is built.
  (Mr Matthews) Yes and that we do as part of the assessment of the scheme before it is built.

  471. What about updating it? What I am saying is that changes have been made over the past decade on environment issues, standards have risen, if you are planning a motorway on something which was agreed ten years ago then you are out of date.
  (Mr Matthews) If there are specific changes in requirements, such as we now have a new policy direction in terms of road surface noise, then if this was before we got to the stage of letting a contract, yes, we would build that in as a new requirement. We do not have any process formally to go back and review all of the environmental impact unless there have been particular changes either in policy or in the nature of the scheme which would suggest we need to do that.

Dr Ladyman

  472. I want to go back to basics for a moment. Where do Highways Agency schemes come from? Who thinks of them?
  (Mr Matthews) They come from a variety of sources, but predominantly they come from a local assessment of need for changes, whether that is changes in the layout of the existing network or expansion of the network to meet particular requirements for the congestion.

  473. Who does that local assessment?
  (Mr Matthews) Now the local assessment for main new schemes is being handled by the new regional planning bodies. We provide expert and technical support to them and that is a process which in terms of government is managed by the government offices in the regions.

  474. This is an analysis which is completely separate from the analysis performed by, say, local authorities when they come up with their proposals for improving roads which get discussed locally and there is a certain amount of transparency to it and they produce their local transport plans and Government considers which ones to fund. That is a completely separate process from the consideration being given to Highways Agency schemes.
  (Mr Matthews) It is not an entirely separate process, no. The people who are participants in the regional planning bodies are by and large derived from local authorities; they obviously include other people as well. Part of the reason for the regional planning bodies taking a more central role is that they have an ability to look at both the impact and needs of the national road network and the local road network together as part of an integrated look at transport and other local infrastructure issues. There are separate lines of account and chains of command there in terms of who is responsible for maintaining and delivering those different networks.

  475. But the local transport plans published by the various councils might have no mention in them of a road scheme which the regional planning bodies are proposing for the Highways Agency to carry out.
  (Mr Matthews) We would expect, and I am sure the Department of the Environment would expect, for all schemes that have an impact on the local network, on the major trunkroad network, for that impact to be assessed and routinely we are consulted, we discuss as part of our routine business with local authorities and counties our respective developments. In the same way we would be expected and do consult and negotiate with local authorities about plans which are there for major trunkroad or motorway development.

  476. My constituency is in Kent and Kent County Council delivered me a nice copy of the local transport plan and I sit in my study and open it up and read about all their plans for roads in Kent. It is quite possible that a Highways Agency scheme going right the way through the middle of Kent would not be included in the local transport plan because it is not part of the local transport plan.
  (Mr Matthews) That is right. It would be taken into account by the regional planning body in making their own assessments of what the right balance of transport should be between the major national network and the local transport plan. Those are things which the DETR will take into account in reviewing the local transport plans. The local transport plans relate exclusively to the local network because that is what the councils are responsible for.

  477. The average driver does not go along thinking they are making a local journey today so they must not go on any Highways Agency roads. They usually pick the best route from A to B and plan their journey accordingly.
  (Mr Matthews) We would not wish to manage or plan our roads in a way which created that distinction or difficulty in the public's mind, which is why we work very closely at a local level and consult very closely with the local authorities.

  478. Would you not agree it makes a nonsense of trying to build an integrated transport strategy if there are two such clearly diverse processes going on to plan roads? I hear what you are saying about trying to liaise between the two but would it not be more sensible that somebody was responsible for producing a plan which included all proposed road projects in an area?
  (Mr Matthews) That is the purpose and function of the regional planning bodies, at least to try to make sure that those are properly integrated. Without straying into areas of policy which are not my remit, balancing the kinds of priorities and perspective that a county has to have in terms of its local network and the development of a national strategic network is something that does have to be managed, it cannot be done entirely locally in my view, nor would it be sensible for the Highways Agency sitting in Southwark Street to plan every minor road in Kent or Devon.

Mr Donohoe

  479. On the basis of what you have just said, you are virtually talking yourself out of a job.
  (Mr Matthews) I do not think I am; at least I hope I am not.

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