Fears over road project delays and budget waste

Funds to repair roads may not be enough, a watchdog has warned
Funds to repair roads may not be enough, a watchdog has warned

An £11.4bn investment in England’s major roads will not provide best value for money unless “decisive action” is quickly taken, the Whitehall spending watchdog warns.

The Department for Transport (DfT) and government-owned Highways England must update their programme of road enhancements to ensure it is deliverable and affordable, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

In 2014 the Government announced details of the five-year Road Investment Strategy featuring 112 major schemes. Sixteen projects have now been identified as presenting a risk to value for money by Highways England, the NAO said.

Highways England and the DfT are exploring ways to manage this risk, including cancelling, delaying or redesigning the work. The 16 schemes have not been publicly identified.

Several problems were created by the roads strategy being designed in just 17 months in order to publish it before the May 2015 general election, the NAO warned. Equivalent rail planning takes around 30 months.

Among the problems the watchdog highlighted are that the DfT selected projects without knowing enough about whether they represented best use of taxpayers’ money.

Some 54 schemes are scheduled to start in 2019/20, which would cause “significant disruption” to motorists, increase prices and put pressure on resources at Highways England, according to the NAO. The report stated that by last August the amount by which forecast capital costs exceeded available funding had reached £841m.

Highways England is 19 per cent below its target staff total for procurement and commercial specialists, and has been filling gaps with consultants and interim staff costing on average three times more than permanent employees, the NAO noted.

The NAO said: “If the Department and Highways England do not take decisive action before Highways England publishes the next iteration of its delivery plan in summer 2017, there is a risk that the first Road Investment Strategy will not deliver optimal value, and that current challenges are carried forward into future road investment periods.”

AA president Edmund King said: “Drivers will be frustrated that even after clear promises were made, upgrades to heavily congested roads could be delayed or scrapped altogether. The public should be told which of the 16 schemes have stalled so that they know if they are stuck on a road to nowhere.”