Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 142- 159)




  142. Good afternoon. Would you be kind enough to identify yourselves?

  (Mr Matthews) Tim Matthews, Chief Executive of the Highways Agency.
  (Ms Chipping) I am Hilary Chipping, I am Director of Network Strategy at the Highways Agency.

  143. Mr Matthews, did you have something you wanted to tell us before you began?
  (Mr Matthews) Yes, a couple of points. I thought it might be helpful to explain the different stages of the Highways Agency's roles in multi-modal studies. They really fall into four main areas: the inception and early research and development on the study where we have been throughout an active participant through the steering groups, in large part because many of the schemes remitted to the multi-modal studies were ones on which the agency had done work and had knowledge, so we were an important contributor to the general development of the studies. Increasingly, as the studies have progressed, we have taken on a second role which is testing out in more detail the viability of schemes which are emerging as front runners from the consultants' studies, indeed we were given an explicit remit in agreement with government offices earlier this year to do preparatory work on some proposed schemes so that if ministers were so minded we could get ahead with implementation more quickly. The third stage is when the regional planning bodies, regional assemblies and government offices make their recommendations to ministers. Then we have a role in relation to how study recommendations which relate to an individual region or individual corridor sit in relation to a national strategic view of priorities and needs on the network. Lastly, once decisions are taken, where we are so directed, then it is our job to get on ans implement those chosen schemes.

  144. You did say that many of the schemes in the plans would not be completed by 2010. Why is that?
  (Mr Matthews) The strategic plan of roads for 2010 was to achieve certain outcomes, primarily in terms of congestion and safety targets. An indicative number of schemes was put forward in the ten-year plan, particularly as far as the multi-modal studies were concerned, the motorway widenings and the very large junction improvements. Those were not targets, those were indicative schemes.

  145. A nice difference.
  (Mr Matthews) It is an important difference though because the targets were in relation to what those schemes would produce.

  146. Yes, but they were fairly specific. We are talking about 360 miles of widening of trunk roads and local roads and building 100 new bypasses. We are talking about a very considerable plan and we should like to know what you have to say, both about the estimate for the completion time and why there is a slippage.
  (Mr Matthews) We have an incomplete picture at the moment because we do not have ministerial decisions on any but the first three. Our high level view from those studies where decisions have been taken, but also looking at the recommendations which are emerging, is that we shall be able to meet those indicative targets in the ten-year plan within the ten-year period. That is not to say that the multi-modal studies' recommendations only cover the ten-year period. Schemes will be coming out of those studies where implementation will go into further years. The issue for us is whether we can deliver what the ten-year plan targeted for us. Our high level view at the moment is that we can, yes.

Mr Stringer

  147. The question which lies behind many of the indicative objectives. What has been changed in terms of your objectives and priorities since all these multi-modal schemes have been undertaken? It seems to me that a lot of it has just delayed things. If you go down the M6 to the West Midlands or round London you know what the problems are. What has changed after all these studies?
  (Mr Matthews) The key change as far as the agency is concerned is that we now have, certainly on the studies which have been agreed and potentially from other studies which are still at the recommendation stage, roads and a strategic road network being planned and, where appropriate and possible, delivered as part of an integrated package. When those schemes were remitted, for a variety of reasons there clearly was not the willingness or the need to go forward with those schemes in isolation. The view at the time was that they needed to be looked at in a much wider context.

  148. Forgive me, but that is all process, is it not? It is getting some friends where you did not have friends before. In terms of what it means for which road scheme where roads need widening or you need a new road what has altered?
  (Mr Matthews) You have to look study by study. Certainly in each of the three studies on which we have ministerial decisions, and in a sense that is the only firm ground which I can stand on before those decisions are taken, you can identify in different ways that there have been quite significant changes, both in terms of the total package, but also the schemes from the Highways Agency perspective which were remitted to the studies. Things have changed as a result of the studies.

  149. I accept that there is the remission or delay. I should be really interested in which roads you now do not intend to widen or build or what has changed because of these studies. You can send us a note if you like.
  (Mr Matthews) All that I can focus on at this stage—and I am happy to give a more detailed note—are the three studies where decisions have been made. The other studies do not have the status of a clear brief for us at this stage. On the first study on which ministers took decisions, the study on access to Hastings, there was a very clear ministerial decision not to proceed with one of the major schemes which have been remitted, the bypass for Hastings. We were asked and have been working since then on other schemes which are focusing more on the radial access to Hastings rather than the bypass. That is one example. There are other examples, both in the other two studies where ministers have made decisions and prospectively in some of those other studies. For the other studies, it would probably be sensible to wait until ministers have decided which schemes will go ahead and whether and how far they differ from the remitted schemes.

  150. May I develop that slightly further? Would you accept that there is a relationship between demand by traffic for road space and whether or not you charge for the use of that road?
  (Mr Matthews) Yes, there is a strong economic case for that.

  151. How then can you take a decision to widen roads if you have not taken a decision on whether that extra road space is going to be charged for?
  (Mr Matthews) It is not a decision for me and the Highways Agency. It is a decision for ministers. Their position on road user charging generally has been very clear. From our perspective, it is important to bear in mind firstly that road user charging is not the only measure of demand management which is available in managing the strategic roads.

  152. I accept that but the point is if it is for some time in the future and you are building capacity, would it not make sense to make a decision on whether or not you are going to charge before you build that road?
  (Mr Matthews) It depends entirely case by case on the sensitivity of a particular level of congestion or road development.

  153. I accept that but is it not irrational to leave the decision for eight years before a decision is made once you are taking decisions to build the roads?
  (Mr Matthews) No. I do not think there is any intention to delay the decisions on the strategic road network for eight years. The point I was going on to develop is that there is an issue not just of how sensitive the schemes themselves are to the impact of charging, but the timescale over which that is relevant. Our view at this stage is that ministers will be in a position on the basis of the studies to make decisions on motorway widening without coming at this stage, as they have said they do not wish to, to a firm decision on road user charging.

Clive Efford

  154. Would they not be different schemes though? Would you not plan the schemes differently if charging were going to be part of the scheme?
  (Mr Matthews) This does come back to the issue of how both volume and time sensitive charging is to any particular scheme. Yes, if there are schemes where there would be a very immediate impact, I am sure ministers would weigh that in how and whether they judge to go forward with the scheme. Our assessment at the moment is that on most of the recommendations which are coming forward for widening, that is not an immediate issue which will undermine judgements about how you widen the motorways. The cases for them will stand up.

  155. I am sorry if I missed something in what you were saying, but my understanding is that the impact of charging is to reduce traffic and the capacities then that you would be planning for on a road network would be altered if it were the intention to charge on that road. At the outset there must be a policy decision as to whether it is your intention to charge or not.
  (Mr Matthews) Ministers have made very clear that they are not going to make decisions on these multi-modal studies predicated on the introduction of road user charging. We will be advising ministers and they will be making decisions which are robust decisions without road user charging being within the ten-year plan period.

Tom Brake

  156. Do you know at what point you will reach a pipeline or steady state flow of projects? Clearly what the industry wants, the civil engineers want, is predictable workload.
  (Mr Matthews) I cannot give you a precise time, but we are very conscious, both in terms of advising ministers about decisions and timescales for implementing decisions and also in the way in which we have been consulting both the contracting and the consulting industry about how we manage the programme, that we need as smooth a flow of schemes as possible. An important part of that has been a consultation exercise which we have had with the industry over the last few months on how we might package groups of schemes together in a way which is consistent with proper procurement practice but gives companies greater certainty and greater assurance over a period longer than a single project in which they can invest in the plant and the training and development of their resource. I am acutely conscious that we in government collectively are potentially making significant demands on the construction industry and the more we can engage with them in planning ahead, the better chances we have of both smooth and cost effective delivery.

  157. You are not willing to give us a rough approximation that within three years or within five years you will have reached that point.
  (Mr Matthews) We would hope very swiftly after key decisions are made by ministers on the big multi-modal studies that we shall be in a position to be clear with the industry and be clear with the freight industry and the local authorities and others who will be affected by the programme what that programme will be and what the procurement strategy will be for managing that.

  158. You have made what appear to be some very optimistic estimates about how you are going to be able to shorten the process for these projects. The project commencement to public consultation time is going to drop from 143 to 43 weeks, the preferred route to draft orders from 152 to 90 weeks. Why did you not do this before?
  (Mr Matthews) In previous times what generally drove procurement practice was a series of sequential decisions. You did not start another part until you had finished and signed off. That was in part slightly defensive and cautious use of public resource. Increasingly we have come to the view and the experience that a combination of better and earlier consultation and better, slicker procurement involving doing work in parallel rather than waiting for every decision before you move onto the next stage can save very significant chunks of time.

  159. Do you have any projects which have succeeded in meeting these optimistic timescales?
  (Mr Matthews) We have only been working on the full gamut of this new timescale for the last two or three years, but we are already seeing, in schemes which are coming in at points in this process, some very rapid delivery. There is a scheme in Lincolnshire which is in the programme at the moment where we are anticipating that we can deliver that scheme to start on site within four years. One of the key elements of better procurement, which is not our initiative, it is one Sir John Egan and others have been advocating across the construction industry, is to get the supply team involved at a much earlier stage. You do not bring the contractor on at the eleventh hour when every bit of constructor innovation has been designed out of the process. One of the things we are doing, which is called early contractor involvement, is appointing the contractor at a much earlier stage and we are now beginning to appoint contractors even before we have been through some of the statutory processes so that they can become more involved with the public consultation and the design and so that the whole process of inquiry, if a scheme needs to go to public inquiry, is informed by the builders' view on how a scheme can be developed. It is a combination of better consultation and modernising our procurement practice.

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