Delivery doubts surface in watchdog's SRN health check

24/07/2019
Dom Browne

Highways England has been given a reasonably clean bill of health by its watchdog's annual report, although more progress must be made on safety, customer satisfaction and the continuing delays to delivery.

The government-owned company originally planned to start 112 major schemes between 2015-2020; however only 70 'are now likely to begin in that time in their current form', the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said.

Transport Network first revealed that around 10% of the RIS prorgamme was being kicked into the long grass, with schemes being dropped for various reasons including value for money.

The latest figures from the ORR, suggest that of the original 112 schemes, '103 remain in the programme'.

Delivery

  • six schemes formally paused that do not currently demonstrate value for money;
  • two schemes formally stopped due to lack of stakeholder support;
  • four schemes under review and are 'unlikely to go ahead in their current form but not formally changed'
  • 25 schemes formally deferred to the next road period, of which 16 were deferred to minimise road user disruption and nine schemes were deferred mainly as a consequence of external challenges – for example as an outcome of public consultations and schemes’ options appraisals;
  • 14 schemes advanced within Road Period 1 to start earlier than originally planned;
  • four schemes likely to miss the RIS commitments to start construction during the road period, predominately as a result of delays with the statutory planning process, and have been deferred to the next road period.

In 2018-19, four major schemes started work, with two revised to minimise road user disruption, and one which did not start as planned and is under review due to changes on adjacent local roads.

Of seven schemes planned to open to traffic, six actually did.

Highways England plans to start 26 schemes during 2019- 2020. A high proportion of these is forecast to start in the last quarter of RIS 1, which increases the risk that some will slip to Road Period 2. 

The ORR warned that these schemes need to be managed with extreme care to ensure there is not further slippage in the delivery programme.

Cost overruns 

Despite the programme of works having diminished, Highways England has forecast total costs in this road period (2015-2020) 'that are £205m higher than its RIS1 funding', the ORR revealed.

This has however apparently reduced significantly over the road period, and from last year, when the difference was £438m.

Highways England has also reported £848m of efficiency savings so far and states it is on track to meet its target of £1.2bn by March 2020.

However, ORR has questioned whether these figures capture the full story and suggested 'net efficiency' could be lower than stated. 

The ORR said: 'The funding provided for RIS1 was not enough to deliver all of the specified schemes, and was set at a time when there was not a full understanding of scheme scope. While fewer schemes are being delivered than originally expected in road period 1, the costs associated with this deferred work are comparable to the under-funding.

'The company has also benefited from lower than expected inflation. Our analysis of this area of evidence suggests that net levels of efficiency may be lower than those reported.'

Safety

Due to a complex adjustment in police incident reporting, Highways England has actually improved upon its target to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSIs) at a faster rate - as was first revealed by our sister publication Highways.

The adjusted figures show that Highways England has achieved a 32% reduction in in KSIs in 2017, compared to a 20% reduction under the unadjusted figures.

Fewer people were killed or seriously injured on the network in 2017 than in any previous year, 'but further reductions are required if the company is to deliver its challenging target of a 40% reduction by 2020,' the ORR said.

This is despite the number of people killed on the network actually increasing. In 2017, there were 236 deaths on the strategic road network, which is five (2%) higher than in 2016.

Highways England has a target in its delivery plan to achieve 90% of travel on roads given a 3-star rating, or above, for safety. It estimates that 95% of travel was on roads rated at least 3-star in 2018-19 – putting it on track to meet this target for the end of road period 1.

However, as Highways revealed, it looks unlikely Highways England will meet its other delivery plan target to make the upgrade the majority of one and two star roads to three stars by 2020.

Traffic flow

Highways England is delivering its targets for smooth flow of traffic – keeping 98.3% of the network open to traffic, against a target of 97%, and clearing 88% of incidents within an hour, against a target of 85%.

However, congestion has increased in the last year with a minor increase in delays, which reached 9.4 seconds per vehicle mile.

Network condition

On this key performance indicator, the ORR found 95.5% of the network is in good condition above Highways England's target of 95%.'

Road user satisfaction

In 2018-19, Highways England set out a customer service improvement plan, aimed at raising levels of user satisfaction. It has delivered the actions set out in the plan, but overall satisfaction remains below the 90% target, at 88.4%.

Noise mitigation

In relattion to a target to mitigate at least 1,150 noise important areas by 2020, Highways England mitigated 300 during the year, bringing total for the road period to 951 and meaning that 199 further mitigations are required in 2019-20 to meet the target.

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