Tories’ road fund is no revolution

A two-lane carriageway of a main road (the other two-lane carriageway is mostly hidden behind plants in this photograph). There is a sign pointing straight ahead for "Lowestoft A12" and off to the left for "Framlingham B1116, Wickham Mkt and Orford B1078". A metallic dark blue Ford car is in the left-hand lane although it is partly in the right-hand lane, indicating that it is pulling in or pulling out. A yellow sign points off the road for "diverted traffic". There is a deep blue sky with a few small white clouds. There are trees along the left side of the road and fields and hedgerows in the background.This morning it was announced that the government was diverting just over a sixth of the £5.8bn assigned two years ago to the National Roads Fund (NRF) from trunk roads and motorways to regional main roads, particularly those removed from central government control under the Labour government (which the Times was eager to mention in their report) and transferred to local authority control. This has led to some stories in regional newspapers which eagerly reported that their local by-pass scheme was going to get funding; the Ipswich Star, for example, reported that this might include the Ipswich northern by-pass, a scheme which was under discussion in the early 90s when I was at school there, but (like the Kesgrave by-pass scheme which actually saw trees cut down before being abandoned) never went anywhere. The money is only going to be available from 2020 after ‘consultations’, but the announcement is less of a “revolution” than the press reports are making out.

The Times noted in their report that the Labour government had transferred a number of A-roads from central to local government control, which is true. Some of these arguably should not have been transferred because, regardless of low traffic volumes, they were the main routes to whole areas of the country — the A16 from Peterborough up the east coast of Lincolnshire, for example — but others were old main roads whose main volume of traffic had been diverted onto a new or upgraded trunk road, such as the A40 from Oxford to Gloucester; traffic from London to Gloucester and Cheltenham is now expected to use the M4 and A419/A417 via Swindon. Some have actually been transferred the other way (like the A21 from Sevenoaks to Hastings) and some of the remaining trunk roads also have motorway alternatives (e.g. the Dunstable-Cannock stretch of the A5, the A46 south of Warwick) and can’t possibly be in regular use by long-distance traffic. The A5 in particular is too slow for that. Central government already funds road projects that are off trunk roads. The Norwich “northern distributor road”, for example, is partly funded by the Department of Transport, and in 2014 the government agreed funding for three schemes in Oxfordshire, all of them off the trunk road network.

Some of the main roads which are in the worst need for improvements or resurfacing were never trunk roads: the A31 between Guildford and Winchester, for example, had to be closed two weeks ago for emergency resurfacing after the surface of the westbound carriageway melted in the heat. This is a county road in Surrey; the quality of some stretches in Hampshire is pretty poor as well. Although parts of it are dual carriageway, it has not been upgraded much west of Alton; traffic to Southampton (and places west along the other bit of the A31, which is a trunk road) are expected to go north to Camberley and join the M3. This is, I suspect, the thinking behind the decisions to “de-trunk” a lot of old main roads: they don’t want long-distance traffic using them. They want them on the motorways and a smaller number of upgraded dual carriageways.

There are, in my opinion, good reasons why some of the bypass projects expected to benefit from this “new money” were shelved in the first place. Ipswich has a good enough road to take people up to the north-east side; the eastern by-pass was open while the A45 (now the A14 from the Midlands) still went through the suburbs of Ipswich as the western by-pass was the last stretch to open. The convenience of a road from north-west of Ipswich to places like Martlesham, Woodbridge and Wickham Market is not worth the environmental destruction, while Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth are already served by roads from the west and south-west including the A47, a trunk road, and the single-carriageway but fairly good quality A143. Furthermore, a northern by-pass will lead to pressure for further upgrades to the A12 between Wickham Market and Lowestoft. A better use of public money in Ipswich might be to improve the existing dual carriageway and the Copdock interchange where the A14 meets the A12 up from London.

And local authorities cannot always be blamed for failing to maintain main roads to the same extent as trunk roads are maintained, as they get their money from central government — they do not keep all of the council tax money they levy, and their rates are capped — and have to spend it on schools, social care, rubbish collection and so on. Central government has cut funding to local councils and those councils are legally obliged to spend it on certain things, an obligation reinforced by court judgements since the cuts started after the 2010 election. Government could simply return some of those roads to trunk road status and central government control, or it could legislate to reform the way local taxes are raised, or to ring-fence council spending for main roads. It’s a classic case of councils being set up to take the blame for decisions actually made by central government; the government has had seven years to put right the Labour government’s perceived mistake, if it wanted to, by new legislation or other means.

*Image source: Geograph, copyright David Dixon, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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