Exclusive: Highways England's active travel claims don't add up

21/01/2021
Chris Ames

Highways England has been unable to support its claim to have completed 160 cycle schemes between 2015-20 under its Designated Funds programme.

A number of schemes funded under the programme remain unbuilt, it has emerged, and despite repeated requests the government-owned company has been unable to provide a list of completed schemes.

Highways has also learned that the company has not provided its Designated Funds Advisory Group with details of which schemes it has built and has only provided outcome monitoring data for a few individual schemes.

Roger Geffen MBE, policy director at Cycling UK, told Highways: ‘In principle I obviously want to support the Designated Funds programmes. Yet, as a member of Highways England’s Designated Funds Advisory Group, it frustrates me that Highways England has failed to carry out systematic reporting and monitoring of the schemes it has delivered, let alone whether its investments have been achieved their stated aims – or even what those aims were.

‘We do get case study reports of individual success stories, which is better than nothing. However, if Highways England is sincere about wishing to deliver safety, environmental and community benefits, it must invest in robust monitoring, so that both Highways England itself and its stakeholders can tell whether its programmes are doing what they were meant to do, or what improvements may be needed.’

Concerns were raised after Highways England stated in published documents that it had completed 160 schemes by March 2020, but continued to report the same figure since then, even as it announced new schemes being completed. 

For instance, it cited the same 160 figure in June last year when announcing the opening of a new scheme in Bridport, Dorset, and reported the same number in the last few weeks. 

Unmonitored

The revelations have also raised further concerns around the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to carry out its role as Highways England’s statutory monitor after it rubber-stamped the claims.

The ORR’s assessment of Highways England’s performance during 2019/20, which also served as a summary of RIS 1, stated that 160 schemes had been completed.

It told Highways that, consistent with its role under the Infrastructure Act, it relied on the company’s own ‘validation’ of its performance, with some schemes validated after the end of RIS 1.

A spokesperson said: ‘Highways England’s year-end performance reporting is subject to the company’s internal audit processes to ensure accuracy of the figures reported.’

The target set and claims made

Under the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS 1), the government-owned company had a target of 150 schemes by March 2020 through its Cycling, Safety and Integration fund, which provided £85m specifically for cycling during the first five years.

The RIS document itself pledged £100m towards a six-year target of 200 schemes, although this target was quietly dropped when the second RIS repackaged its designated funds under different headings.

The company reported at the end of the fourth year of RIS 1 (2018/19) that it had built a total of 101 schemes, leaving another 49 to be built during 2019/20. At the end of that year it reported both publicly and to the ORR that it had built a further 59, and had therefore completed 10 more schemes than the five-year target.

Outstanding and incomplete RIS 1 schemes

Investigations by Highways have revealed that at least seven schemes for which Highways England announced funding under RIS 1 remain unstarted or unfinished, with at least one further scheme having being completed after the March 2020 deadline.

In the absence of a definitive list, it remains unclear whether the schemes were counted as part of the 160 that Highways England claims to have completed under the Designated Funds programme. Some schemes are now unfunded and, while others still have Highways England funding, it is unclear whether this is from the RIS 1 or RIS 2 budget.

In 2019 Highways England announced that £17m was to be invested from its ‘Cycling, Safety and Integration’ designated fund towards four cycle routes close to the A30.

According to Cornwall Council, construction began last year on a section of one of the four schemes but was hampered by the pandemic. The other schemes are at various stages of preparation.

Highways has asked Highways England to clarify whether the schemes, for which its contribution represents one fifth of its 2015-20 cycling budget, remain funded from the first RIS.

Later in 2019, Highways England announced ‘more than £5 million of safety improvements to benefit cyclists and walkers living and working near Bristol’. It said the cash ‘comes from a £175 million pot dedicated for cycling, safety and integration improvements’.

However, Highways has learned that Highways England pulled funding for two of the schemes, which were to have been delivered by Sustrans, when the charity said it could not complete them by the March 2020 deadline. The schemes remain unfunded.

A third scheme was to be delivered by South Gloucestershire Council. A spokesperson for the council told Highways: ‘The scheme is still ongoing; the current completion date is estimated to be around April 2021.’

Highways England contributed £675,000 to the Bridport scheme carried out by Dorset Council, which said the works were funded entirely from Highway England’s 2015-20 Designated Funds.

A spokesperson said the final phase of the works started in February 2020, with completion due by the end of March, but that on 23 March construction work was halted for six weeks because of the pandemic.

As a result, the scheme opened after the March 2020 deadline.

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