Transport

Assembly to debate the state of Welsh roads

In the summer of 2018 the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills (EIS) Committee undertook an inquiry into the State of Roads in Wales. The Assembly will debate the Committee’s report on 9 January 2019.

03 January 2019

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | Read this post in Welsh

In the summer of 2018 the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills (EIS) Committee undertook an inquiry into the State of Roads in Wales. The Assembly will debate the Committee’s report on 9 January 2019.

This issue is not only a priority for Committee Members based on their postbags, it was also identified by key stakeholders, including the haulage and civil engineering sectors, during Committee engagement sessions.

The Welsh Government’s response (PDF,232KB) to the report accepted nine of the Committee’s fourteen recommendations. A further one was accepted “in principle” and four rejected. This article examines the reasoning presented by the Welsh Government for rejecting the four recommendations.

As part of the inquiry the Committee held a photographic competition asking the public to capture on camera “the state of the roads in Wales”. The winning image, taken by Antony Maybury from Wrexham, is below.

Background

The inquiry looked at three issues:

  • the condition and maintenance of the road network;
  • delivery of major enhancement projects; and
  • the sustainability of the approach to highways.

Responsibility for the Welsh road network is split between the Welsh Government, as highway authority for the trunk road and motorway network, and local authorities who have the same responsibility for local roads.

Current condition

Welsh Government data showing a varying picture of network condition provided the backdrop to the inquiry.

While the overall trend in local roads is improving, nearly 11% were “in poor condition” in 2016-17.  This national figure disguises significant variation – from nearly 19% of the Powys network in a poor condition, to just 3.4% in Flintshire.

For the trunk road network, the data show that in 2017-18, 4.9% of the motorway network and 1.8 per cent of the trunk road network required close monitoring of structural condition.

Funding pressures

Evidence to the inquiry suggested Welsh Government funding to support local government borrowing through the former Local Government Borrowing Initiative was responsible for the improving trend in local roads.  Consultees suggested that a deterioration in condition could be expected as a result of funding pressures following the end of this initiative in 2014-15.

While data suggests the condition of the trunk road and motorway network is better, both the Welsh Government and its Trunk Road Agents (the bodies with delegated responsibility for operating and maintaining the network), noted that more serious “category 1” defects are increasing.  Like local authorities, the Trunk Road Agents suggested long-term funding would be beneficial.

From the point of view of major projects, the Committee took the Fourth Assembly Public Accounts Committee’s 2015 inquiry into Value for Money of Motorway and Trunk Road Investment, and the preceding 2011 report by the Auditor General for Wales on Major Transport  Projects as its starting point.

Evidence to the inquiry from the WLGA (PDF 429KB) highlighted how capital reductions, changes to Welsh Government grant schemes and annual funding means “there are now very few major enhancement projects led by local authorities”.

For major projects on the trunk road and motorway network, witnesses raised a range of issues, including a lack of clarity on the pipeline of projects, complex procurement and slow decision-making as factors affecting value for money.

The rejected recommendations

While the Welsh Government accepted a number of recommendations, it rejected four key Committee recommendations outright.

Focusing local spending on roads

In order to address funding issues identified in evidence, the Committee recommended that the Welsh Government should “consider how best it could incentivise local authorities to invest in maintenance”, potentially including a “match-funding approach” topping up local government spending.

The Welsh Government rejected this on the basis that:

it is a matter for local authorities to decide how they allocate the Revenue Support Grant for maintenance and unhypothecated capital grant for refurbishment or new provision.

The response goes on to refer to a further £60m allocated to local authorities over three years – confirmed in the Welsh Government’s 2019-20 budget.  During scrutiny of the draft budget in the EIS Committee, the then Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken States, described this as:

…a significant sum of money, and I think, in all fairness, local government colleagues have raised with me on numerous occasions concerns about the cost of not addressing poorly maintained roads because of austerity……It will be delivered through the local government budget, and it’ll go straight into the revenue support grant.

However, regardless of the clear need to spend on maintenance it remains to be seen how far non-ring fenced funding allocated through the revenue support grant will be spent on highways by cash-strapped local authorities.

Funding certainty for local authorities

In his January Plenary statement on the future of Transport for Wales the then Cabinet Secretary said he had “committed to a five-year programme of transport capital funding through Transport for Wales”, which would lead to  15 to 20% efficiencies.

However, in responding to the Committee’s report the Welsh Government rejected a call for local authorities to have similar certainty.  While the response says the Government is “sympathetic” to such calls, it sets out a number of reasons why it can’t do this now.

It refers to the fact that local authorities receive funding from a range of sources, not just the Welsh Government.  It also cities uncertainty around the planned UK Government spending review, combined with austerity and Brexit, as the basis of the decision to publish revenue plans for 2019-20, and capital for 2019-20 and 2020-21.  While it commits to work with local government to provide “indicative information to inform their forward financial planning”, it’s unclear how this funding uncertainty affects the five year programme of capital funding committed for Transport for Wales.

Project pipeline

The Committee heard evidence suggesting that Wales lacks the clear pipeline of major projects which the civil engineering sector needs to plan effectively.

This reflects evidence to the Fourth Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, despite the fact that the National Transport Finance Plan (NTFP) has been published and updated since.

The NTFP includes details on delivery and timescales.  However while the Confederation of British Industry described this as “a step in the right direction”, it also highlighted a need for these to be prioritised with clear timescales. The Committee heard similar evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses and South Wales Chamber of Commerce.

The Welsh Government rejected a recommendation that “clearer indications of priorities and timescales” be set out in the NTFP, and that the newly constituted National Infrastructure Commission for Wales should recommend priorities.

The response says the Welsh Government will “review whether greater clarity can be given as to the stages of development” for NTFP projects.  However, it says the plan has a “relatively short budget planning time horizon of five years”, so it is not the role of the infrastructure commission, with its 5 to 30 year planning horizon, to consider projects within the NTFP timescale.

Having rejected the recommendation, it remains to be seen whether the Welsh Government will increase clarity in the pipeline for NTFP projects.

Sustainable highways policy

The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) (PDF 758KB) provided evidence setting out what it believes to be the elements of a more sustainable highways policy.

The Committee said it was “persuaded” by this. It recommended that the new Wales Transport Strategy, due in May 2020, should:

…set a clear priority for maintaining the existing road network, mainstreaming and upgrading active travel infrastructure, and prioritising access, in preference to building new roads.

In rejecting this recommendation the Welsh Government’s response fails to address the policy issues suggested by the recommendation. Instead it focuses on the fact that it is the NTFP rather than the Wales Transport Strategy that “sets out the investment programme”.  This is despite the fact that the Committee’s recommendation addresses policy priorities, setting strategic direction, rather than specific elements of the investment programme.

However, the then Cabinet Secretary was asked about this recommendation by EIS Committee during scrutiny of the 2019-20 draft budget in November 2018.  In that evidence session he said he didn’t “entirely agree” with the recommendation, explaining that he distinguished between building new roads and addressing congestion by dealing with pinchpoints.  He said:

I think it’s more complicated than just deeming capital programmes where you see tarmac and concrete poured as new roads. It’s often a case of actually alleviating congestion through providing a bypass or overtaking provision. And would you really want to see projects like Northern Gateway, Newtown bypass, Caernarfon-Bontnewydd bypass cancelled in order to pour more money into road maintenance…?

The Welsh road network is one of Wales’ highest value assets. The Committee will no doubt wish to follow up on its recommendations, and the Government’s position as outlined during the debate, to assess how far Welsh highways policy provides value for money.


Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service