Baroness Vere admits public trust was undermined on smart motorway safety

Chris Ames

Highways England undermined trust in smart motorways when it failed to give an accurate timeline for a 2016 pledge to make technology to detect stopped vehicles ‘part of the standard for all lane running going forward’, a minister has told MPs.

Stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology did not become a standard element of smart motorway design until 2018.

This delay meant that the first smart motorway schemes with the technology as standard did not complete design until last year, while the opening of schemes on which work started in the meantime will be delayed for SVD to be retrofitted.

Appearing before the Transport Select Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the roll-out of smart motorways, transport minister Baroness Vere (pictured) denied that ministers had made mistakes.

She was asked by committee chair Huw Merriman about the commitment made to the committee in 2016 by Highways England’s chief highway engineer, Mike Wilson. He told MPs in 2016: ‘It works, and it will be part of the standard for rolling out smart motorways going forward, and indeed retrofitting on existing smart motorways.’

On Wednesday, Baroness Vere told MPs: ‘I think if there is something where there was potentially a misunderstanding, where clarity was not made, was on stopped vehicle detection roll-out, where I feel that… there was a missed opportunity to explain the timeline for the roll-out. I think that’s probably one area where there was a lack of clear communication which potentially resulted in a lack of trust – and of course we regret that.’

The minister claimed that the delay resulted from the need to carry out trials of the system over two years. In fact, in 2016 Mr Wilson told MPs: ‘We are now confident that it works, and it will be part of the standard roll-out of smart motorways going forward.’

On Wednesday (30 June), Mr Wilson appeared before the committee again. He said that the adoption of SVD from 2018 meant that it was part of the standard roll-out of smart motorways going forward: ‘Going forward as of May 2018.’ Mr Merriman responded: ‘That’s just not good enough. When you say going forward, it doesn’t mean [that]. It doesn’t mean me as a lawyer to say that; we all know that’s the case.’

Mr Wilson told MPs that there had been an operational pilot scheme on the M25 in 2017. Acting Highways England chief executive Nick Harris admitted that Highways England had given ‘the wrong impression’ about the roll-out of SVD.

He said that after the success of this pilot, the company had come up with an implementation programme which was ‘about five years’.

This appears to contradict claims by transport secretary Grant Shapps that the target of March 2023 set in last year’s Department for Transport stocktake represented an acceleration of the timetable.

Baroness Vere said she was unable to state what the timetable was before Mr Shapps’ supposed intervention.

There was some dispute over the effectiveness of the SVD system. Mr Harris was questioned on the detection rate of SVD, following a report by Highways that in a 2016 trial the SVD system had only sent alerts for 65% of incidents.

Mr Harris (pictured) was asked about detections rather than alerts but appeared to rely on Highways England’s claim that failures to send alerts from areas of the motorway that were within the trial area but considered ‘out of range’ of radar should be discounted.

He told MPs that Highways England would supply a copy of the report of the 2017 pilot, which it has so far only released in redacted form.

Mr Harris incorrectly told MPs that the well-publicised figure of 17 minutes to detect a broken down vehicle in a live lane on a smart motorway without SVD was ‘how long it could take’, and was ‘the longest time’ that came out of the 2016 SVD study. It was in fact the average time in the study.

Mr Wilson told MPs that the latest figures on compliance with red X lane closure gantry signs have fallen to 92% but that only 48 out of 95 cameras had been updated to provide evidence for prosecution.

The minister told Mr Merriman that Highways England would release long-term evaluations of existing smart motorway schemes ‘very soon’ but appeared to suggest there will be mixed results, including missed objectives in the business case.

As Highways has reported, Highways England has refused to publish five-year post opening project evaluations (POPEs) for smart motorway schemes on the M1 under the Freedom of Information Act and has so far not disclosed the reports to the committees.

The only five-year POPE released so far showed that the stretch of motorway studied became less safe as traffic levels rose.

Asked how many smart motorway schemes had delivered the expected £3 for every £1 spent, the minister replied: ‘I wouldn’t know that, because we need to do the POPEs. We have got some POPE reports coming out fairly soon.’

She later added that she hoped to do this ‘the week after next’. She invited the committee to consider two things: ‘One, that there will be variation scheme by scheme. It is better to look at a programme basis. But it is the case that from where we can see at the moment, we are making good progress against the business case.’

Referring to the need to look at five-year evaluations, she said: ‘There is one thing that this whole process has made me take away, and I’m going to take this back to my department: I think I need to be, as roads minister, a bit more on top of evaluation than we probably are now.’

She added that, while there is a big focus on business cases, ‘from a ministerial level, I need to be more focused as well on - are they actually working. And if they are not working, it doesn’t mean it was a bad scheme, and sometimes you will be able to improve it, but it’s those lessons learned, put it back into the system and all that sort of thing that we need to focus on.’

Mr Harris told MPs: ‘I think it’s important to look at this at a programme level, so some schemes as yet we have not realised the benefits that were put forward, but at a programme level we are generally achieving, or starting, our expectation is that we will achieve that level of benefit.’

Mr Wilson said that smart motorways have already saved 28 million hours in lost time ‘with an economic value of 350 million’.

Mr Harris was asked whether the economic case for smart motorways was still robust, given an expected increase in working from home after the pandemic.

Referring to projected traffic levels, he told MPs: ‘I’m not seeing anything at the moment that would cause us to question those projections.’

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue


Highways Awards 2021 finalists revealed

Harris leads National Highways into new era

View the latest issue

Highways jobs

Street Works Co-ordinator

£21,153 - £23,791
Do you want to make a difference to how Street Works are managed within Lincolnshire? Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Principal Transport Planning Officer

£44,863 - £46,845. In addition, re-location expenses may also be paid.
This is an exciting opportunity to join the Strategic Transport Planning Team at Gloucestershire County Council (GCC). Gloucester, Gloucestershire
Recruiter: Gloucestershire County Council

Group Engineer - Highways Network Management

£40,876 - £45,859 Plus market rate supplement of £3,000, reviewed annually
We are looking for a Group Engineer who will support the recovery from the pandemic. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Group Engineer - Safety Design

£40,876 - £45,859 Plus market rate supplement of £3,000, reviewed annually
We are looking for an experienced engineer to join our Highways Safety Design team. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Highways Asset Management Engineer

£30,451 - £32,234 per annum
The post holder will... Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Senior Traffic Engineer

£32,910 - £35,745 per annum
This is an exciting opportunity to join Telford & Wrekin Council’s Highway Network Management Team to... Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Traffic Signals Engineer

£25,991 - £35,745
An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Technician/Engineer to join the Traffic Signals Systems & Operations (TSSO) team as a Career Grade Engineer. Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Transport and Procurement Manager

£48,194 - £52,980 per annum
Are you a Transport Manager looking for a role that is a break from the norm? Andover, Hampshire
Recruiter: Test Valley Borough Council

Traffic Engineers (Highway Design and Asset Management)

£32,910 – £35,745 per annum - fixed term for 5 years
We are looking for highly motivated and enthusiastic people to join our Traffic Engineering team. Halifax, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council

Street Lighting Design Engineer

£18,812 - £35,745
This is an exciting opportunity for you to join Lincolnshire County Council's Street Lighting Team as a Street Lighting Design Engineer. Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Project Engineers

£36,922 per annum (Grade H-I)
West Berkshire Council are looking for innovative, enthusiastic and focused Project Engineers. Newbury, Berkshire
Recruiter: West Berkshire Council

Charge Hand (Highways)

£24,943 to £27,067 per annum
We are looking for motivated individuals who are willing to contribute to the team’s growth and success. York, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: City of York Council

Principal Highways Drainage Engineer

£32,910 - £35,745 per annum
Do you want to take a leading role maintaining a large network of assets? Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Cleaner Streets and Waste Contract Manager - Communities

£48,809 - £49,794 per annum
Responsible for managing the street cleansing, household waste collections services and community recycling centres Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr)
Recruiter: Bridgend County Borough Council

Senior Engineer Flood & Drainage

£40,876 - £45,859
We make a difference to the environment we live in. Come and help us manage our blue infrastructure. Bracknell, Berkshire
Recruiter: Bracknell Forest Borough Council

Business Support Officer – Passenger Transport

£20,092 - £21,748
You will assist the wider team in ensuring the office functions are delivered in a timely and accurate manner. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Senior Engineer

£31,339 to £35,754 per annum
We are looking for enthusiastic and motivated individuals who are willing to contribute to the teams growth and success. York, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: City of York Council

Waste Collection Operative - Loaders / HGV Drivers (Hays Recruitment)

Competitive Salary
Hays are excited to be working in partnership with Chelmsford City Council who are always looking to expand their teams and are looking for... Chelmsford, Essex
Recruiter: Chelmsford City Council

Highways Presents

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Video