A road and street works strategy for Wales: the end of the road for highway misery?

24 June 2016

Note: The Welsh Government has withdrawn the oral statement scheduled for Tuesday 28 June.

23 June 2016

Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

This is a picture of highway maintenance

Image from Flickr by Carol. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Welsh Government consulted on proposals for a roads and street works strategy for Wales between 7 December 2015 and 28 February 2016. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure will make a Plenary statement on 28 June 2016 on Welsh Government plans for the strategy. This post explains what road and street works are, and looks at some recent criticisms of the current approach to their management in Wales.

What is the difference between road and street works?

“Road works” are carried out by highway authorities to repair, maintain or replace highways. In Wales the Welsh Government is the highway authority for the trunk road and motorway network, while local authorities are the highways authority for the local road network.

“Street works” are carried out either by “statutory undertakers”, who have a statutory right to work on the highway, or “licencees” under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 (NRSWA) who can carry out works under a licence issued by the “street authority” – usually the highway authority. Most utility companies are statutory undertakers and have the right to install and maintain their equipment on or under the street.

What legislation governs arrangements for road and street works?

In England and Wales road and street works are controlled by the NRSWA and the Traffic Management Act 2004 (TMA).

The NRSWA, and associated Regulations and codes of practice, establishes a legislative framework for those undertaking road and street works. It places a duty on street authorities to co-ordinate all works on the highway, and also on undertakers to co-operate.

The TMA provides additional powers to reduce congestion, including placing a duty on “local traffic authorities” to manage their road network to ensure traffic can move freely. It also allows for the introduction of permit schemes for road and street works and enhanced powers for local highway authorities to direct when works are carried out.

Why is a road and street works strategy needed?

The Welsh Government’s consultation document notes that while the NRSWA and TMA improved management road and street works “the incidence of congestion due to over running or conflicting works is still greater than we would like”.

In 2011 the Auditor General for Wales published a report on Major Transport Projects. In considering “whether recently completed major transport projects in Wales have met their objectives and were delivered to time and cost” he concluded:

“The successful delivery of major transport projects requires effective working relationships between all the parties involved. Relationships with utility companies have been problematic at times, contributing to delays and rising project costs, and there is little incentive for utility companies to undertake work in a way that is cost-effective or timely from the perspective of the public sector employer.”

The Auditor General identified a number of issues including the fact that:

  • There is poor communication and lack of government influence over utility company priorities despite the existence of a Welsh Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee (WHAUC);
  • UK and Welsh Government good practice guidance focused on minimising disruption to highway users and communities rather than the impact of poor co-ordination and communication on major projects;
  • Welsh Government officials reported that legislation relies too much on goodwill of utility companies, and offers little incentive to utility companies to complete their work;
  • There is a lack of information from utility companies on timing for works, and cost increases for utility work after the detailed design stage were also identified.

The Auditor General recommended that the Welsh Government:

“engage with local government and the utility companies to develop some clearly agreed principles in terms of how they should work together throughout the lifecycle of major transport projects.”

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the Fourth Assembly reported on its inquiry into value for money of Motorway and Trunk Road Investment in June 2015. While some evidence suggested there had been improvements in recent years, other evidence suggested that difficulties arose from failure to involve utility companies early in scheme development.

While the Welsh Government told the Committee about the actions it had taken, the Committee noted that the “street works strategy was still in development four years after the Auditor General’s 2011 report”, and “during oral evidence the Welsh Government was unable to explain why work on this appeared to be delayed and why the strategy was not yet complete”.

The then Director General for Economy, Science and Transport later wrote to the Committee to explain that “a comprehensive strategy has…been developed rather than individual protocols, in order to achieve wider objectives such as reduced congestion and improved journey time reliability”. However, the Committee expressed concern about the time involved, and whether the strategy would ultimately cover major transport project issues.

The Committee also raised concerns about the management and co-ordination of road works. The report concluded:

“The Committee is concerned that some evidence we have received suggests there is greater work to be done in Wales in terms of providing information and accurate communication of road works.

The Committee believes there should be better co-ordination between the Welsh Government and local authorities when diversionary routes are put into place as a consequence of road works, for example more consideration should be given to re-phasing of traffic lights to assist traffic flow.”

What did the Welsh Government consultation propose?

The Welsh Government consultation document made clear that legislative change was not being proposed. Instead it said:

“We believe that by working in partnership with both statutory undertakers and highway authorities through WHAUC we can make significant improvements to the way road and street works are managed for the benefit of Wales within the existing legislative framework. In addition with direct responsibility for the trunk road network….. we think that the Welsh Government itself has an important role to play in leading the adoption of best practice.”

It proposed action in five areas:

  • The planning, co-ordination and implementation of road and street works;
  • The delivery of major projects;
  • Communication with the public and business;
  • Skills and training; and
  • A culture of continual change.

How far any new strategy will address concerns raised by Assembly Members, the Auditor General for Wales and stakeholders will be only become clear as the strategy is implemented, both in terms of the cost of project delivery and the impact on road users and congestion.