Long read: The missing links of the MRN

21/02/2019

The Department for Transport (DfT) has released a map of the major road network (MRN) to sub-national transport bodies (STBs) in advance of scheme bids being handed in this summer.

The maps were released to authorities late last year but have not been made public, which has caused some surprise in the sector.

DfT guidance for MRN bids called for up to 10 top priority schemes but to even be considered for MRN funding 'a local or third-party contribution of at least 15% of the total scheme costs' must have been secured.

'The Department's contribution for MRN interventions will normally be between £20m and £50m,' the guidelines state. 

The DfT has maintained the same eligibility criteria for MRN schemes it announced in response to the initial consultation and removed any definition of what a ‘fit for purpose’ MRN and common performance metrics across the network are needed.

DfT officials told Highways that while the MRN map has not been published, it has been made available to organisations and bodies that will be directly involved in the investment planning process.

One source suggested the DfT might be nervous about revealing the national map as it might still be being refined and have some contentious gaps in the network. However senior figures from two other, separate, STBs said they were happy with the network in their region, which was broadly similar to the one originally imagined by David Quarmby and Phil Carey in their original Rees Jeffreys Road Fund report.

They added that there had been some 'wins' for their areas, suggesting that the DfT had 'listened' to the evidence cases put forward by STBs.

The lack of transparency could add to concerns voiced by some STB sources that once they have prioritised schemes in regional evidence bases (REB), the choice of which scheme to advance could become a political decision in central government.

One source said: 'The first round of MRN funding is likely to be politically driven.'

They suggested there might be an element of catch-up on the network and fine tuning of the process before MRN 2 would see the concept progressed.

DfT guidance states: 'Final investment decisions will also take account of a full range of factors, including the geographical balance of schemes and timescales for delivery to ensure a smooth spending profile.'

A DfT spokesperson said: 'All organisations directly involved in the next stage of the Major Road Network scheme have been given the guidance they need to submit their applications.

'We are committed to investing in this network of the busiest and most economically important local authority ‘A’ roads.'

Large local majors

Large local major (LLM) transport schemes - £50m plus projects – are to be rolled up into the MRN funding for 2020-2025; however there is no indication yet as to what the split would be between the two.

There is expected to be £3.5bn made available through the National Roads Fund from 2020-2025 for schemes outside of the strategic road network.

'You don't have to have too many LLMs before that pot is eaten into. We don't know what the balance is between the two or any indicative funding for each region,' said one STB source.

Another senior source at directors' body ADEPT argued that it would have been easier for STBs if they had indicative regional budgets. However Highways understands there was some concern in the DfT about releasing such figures as the budget is still subject to the planned Spending Review process.

DfT guidance states: 'We would like STBs to identify and prioritise potential LLM schemes in their areas at the same time as they provide the MRN advice.

'LLM is now funded through the National Roads Fund, therefore only road schemes will be considered for the programme. Large Public Transport schemes will be expected to be funded from other programmes that have benefited from increased funding such as the Transforming Cities Fund and through Devolution Deals. The Government will consider the future funding for these as part of the Spending Review.'

Delivery

STBs or regional groupings must submit a REB this summer. This must include a list of up to 10 top priority MRN investments for the period April 2020 to March 2025. The top priority schemes scheduled to start before April 2023 should 'be developed to at least Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC) stage and that the SOBC for each priority scheme should be submitted with the REB'.

The SOBC should indicate the likely cost of the scheme and the level of funding being sought for each option.

'For each scheme the Department will also need to see a credible delivery timetable, starting with the proposed date for the submission of an Outline Business Case (OBC) which the promoting authority has signed up to.'

For schemes due to start construction in 2020/21 and 2021/22, the schemes may need to already be at OBC stage. Schemes starting construction in 2022/23 should ideally be at SOBC stage, and while an SOBC does not need to be submitted for works in 2023/24 and 2024/25, 'this is still desirable'.

The DfT has made some potential development funding available to support the creation of the schemes and take some of the risk out for highway authorities, however this cash is, somewhat ironically, subject to its own application process. DfT officials also seem to be doing their best to discourage costly development processes.

‘We do not intend to place a large burden on local and regional bodies to produce and maintain extensive new regional evidence. The Department recommends that full use is made of existing data and analysis, such as local and regional transport strategies to develop the REBs. The REBs should largely be drawn from work STBs are already doing to develop their Transport Strategies.’

There is some debate about how realistic the delivery timescale is. The feeling appears to be that if schemes are new there is little time to do all the necessary groundwork to ensure it is deliverable before 2025, while if the scheme is based on ‘plans on the shelf’, or as one source put it a ‘bringing out the dead’, these schemes are likely to have a weaker evidence base.

In a statement, Midlands Connect summed up some general concerns including that ‘each region is being asked to submit its top 10 priority schemes, regardless of an area’s relative size, population or economic significance’.

‘Instead, Midlands Connect is calling on the government to provide specific regional funding allocations, in line with the government’s own Rebalancing Toolkit, which was designed to ensure local schemes boost the economy across the whole country.’ This echoes to calls of other regional bodies, including Transport for the North.

The upshot seems to be that STBs welcome the creation of the MRN, but have already moved ahead and are eyeing the MRN 2 in 2025, in the hope that by then the cash will be devolved regionally for them to have more control on integrated network basis.

WSP analysis

The point about more devolution was also made in a recent report on MRN management by WSP, which recommended greater empowerment and clarity for the STBs role and responsibilities. It also called for:

  • Consideration of the MRN as a natural ‘testing ground’ for on-road innovations eg road user charging, HGV platooning, autonomous/ connected vehicles, etc which could benefit UK plc.
  • STBs to be designated as the unequivocal leading bodies for directing regional transport policy, with Highways England guaranteed representation on STBs at the regional level.
  • A portion of DfT funding for the MRN programme should be allocated directly to the STBs with the intention of a) promoting regional economic rebalancing, and b) encouraging innovation and efficiency savings in delivery.
  • Business cases should be developed away from exclusive reliance on benefit cost ratios (BCRs) towards a more holistic set of criteria (regional rebalancing, settlement connectivity, etc).
  • An ‘executive council’ of STBs should be considered as a pan-STB body for direct dealing with DfT and Highways England and to drive coordination and uniformity of STB standards.
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