ORR says Highways England given 'insufficient' safety funds

Dominic Browne and Chris Ames

Highways England was not sufficiently funded to improve roads on its network that fell below an internationally recognised safety rating, despite a clear pledge in its 2015-2020 delivery plan, its regulator has stated.

The frank admission from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) will increase calls for safety spending to be ramped up.

The government-owned company pledged to improve the majority of roads on its network with a one or two star rating under the iRAP methodology to three stars or above by 2020.

This commitment was later agreed by ORR and Highways England to be 'undeliverable'.

Highways England also had a target for the percentage of traffic on roads rated three star or above during the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS) but a baseline assessment in 2015 found that it was already at 95% compared to the required level of 90%.

How much progress Highways England made over the five years will not be fully understood until the results of second survey of the strategic road network taking place this year.

However, Highways England and the Road Safety Foundation (RSF) – which helped carry out the iRAP 2015 baseline survey – forecast that very little progress will have been achieved.

With Highways England taking little or no action to target roads with a low safety rating, the forecast is based on the outcomes of its programme of major projects.

The 2019 star rating report states that the total percentage of traffic on two star roads is predicted to fall by just 0.1% from 5% in 2015 to 4.9% by 2020. The total percentage of traffic on one star roads is not predicted to shift at all, remaining at 0.2%.

On single carriageway roads the majority of traffic is on one and two star sections - 57.4% of traffic was on two star roads in 2015, which is predicted to only slightly improve to reach 58.1% by 2020.

An ORR spokesperson told Highways that while it does not have figures for the cost of bringing roads on the strategic road network up to three stars, ‘it is clear that the costs involved would be significant, and Highways England was not sufficiently funded to deliver these improvements’.

The statement also explains why the 2020-25 RIS (RIS 2) dropped the idea of a target to improve a specific number of roads with a low safety rating.

Instead Highways England will assess the network at the beginning of the period determining a star rating baseline and ‘forecast for 2025 based on its investment plan’.

It will also set an as yet undetermined performance indicator for the percentage of traffic on roads rated three star or above.

As with the first strategy, RIS 2 does not include a ring-fenced fund solely targeting safety. In RIS 1 it had a Cycling, Safety and Integration Fund worth £175m over five years, while RIS 2 has a £140m Safety and Congestion Fund.

The ORR has told Highways that ‘part of the point of our monitoring is to ensure that targets are realistic’.

Drawing up targets based on limited resources appears to take the opposite approach to that recommended by an independent review commissioned by the ORR, which recommended: ‘High Level Star Rating Performance Targets should reflect and drive desired casualty savings.’

As previously reported on Highways, the report from the RSF found that Highways England’s spending on safety is inadequate to meet its short-term and long-term safety targets.

It stated: ‘The current level of SRN investment in specific casualty reduction activity is very small in relation to total road investment.’ The report nevertheless stated that Highways England’s first high level star rating ‘was achievable and introduced performance management of infrastructure safety’.

The RSF was pleased to see an objective target in the first RIS, introducing a performance management regime that could subsequently be tightened.

It appears not to have been anticipated that rather than provide the resources to meet the target of improving a given number of roads, Highways England and its regulator would drop the target in RIS 1 due to insufficient resources and then drop the approach altogether in RIS 2.

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