Major road network announcement could be made within weeks

Dominic Browne

The Department for Transport (DfT) still has a vision for the major road network (MRN) and could make further announcements on schemes in the next few weeks, a senior official has said.

The programme has made slow progress after it was initially conceived, and celebrated, in 2016.

The DfT has failed to outline the full network and only announced the go-ahead for a handful of schemes, which have also barely advanced, despite sub-national transport bodies (STBs) going through an extensive process to draw up a shortlist of projects.

Speaking at the ADEPT autumn conference, local transport director at the DfT Stephen Fidler said the department 'very much' wants to continue the MRN programme.

He conceded it had lost momentum but hinted that there could be a funding announcement coming shortly - perhaps in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 25 November.

Responding to a question from Highways, Mr Fidler said: 'Our original vision of having rolling investment decisions cracking forward and moving on a quarterly basis has been slightly disrupted by moving people into COVID response work and other things.

'But that is still really the vision. Watch this space for the next few schemes in that programme going to the next stage of development in the next few weeks.'

As initially conceived, the MRN concept would have created a coherent network of important local roads.

This network would have been joined with the strategic road network managed by Highways England - though without any changes in the existing split of responsibilities between Highways England and local authorities.

The bridge between the two would have been the STBs. However, the DfT changed this concept to one which provided a rolling fund of investment for a set of specific prioritised schemes within each STB area.

Mr Fidler also addressed recent controversy over STBs' after Transport for the South East was blocked by the secretary of state Grant Shapps from being granted stautory status.

The transport secretary was also forced to backtrack over an assertion by junior minister Baroness Vere that the Government 'would not approve' any such proposals. Mr Shapps argued she 'did not mean that any proposal would not be considered'.

Mr Fidler admitted the bodies must pass a 'high threshold' to secure statutory status. Only Transport for the North has secured it.

He said ministers wanted the regional bodies focused on 'what they do well'.

'Ministers want to see STBs focussed on what they do really really well. One of those things is prioritisation of schemes; that work on the major road network and the large local majors and the prioritisation there was fantastic. Really helpful and made a massive difference to us as a team.

'That is the sort of thing ministers are keen to see STBs do in the future, alongside sharing best practice and that wider [work of] bringing everyone together from the local authorities, the LEPs, mayors, and really have that sense of direction.

'Ministers' view is that doesn't really need statutory status. That is working pretty well. It provides us with flexibility.

'Formally they will look at any proposals coming in. It is not a complete bar on it happening, but I would describe it as a high threshold for the benefits that statutory status would achieve.'

Image shows the A595 at Grizebeck, Cumbria, one of the few MRN schemes with funding

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