Civil engineering spending: is Sunak hitting the right targets?
Announcing an investment of £27bn in strategic roads, Chancellor Rishi Sunak also spared a thought for the ordinary motorist and pledged an additional £2.5bn to repair potholes over the next five years. As the Chancellor said, you can't spread opportunity and level up the country when its roads are in such poor condition.
While this level of investment in improving and expanding Britain's road network is definitely to be applauded, a nagging question remains. Has the money been earmarked for spending in the right way?
The pothole problem
With over 700,000 potholes reported in 2018 alone, no one can pretend that the state of Britain's roads isn't a problem. In 2019, motorists spent an estimated £4.09bn on repair work resulting from the estimated 2.2 million potholes on our roads. The new repair fund will please frustrated motorists and create jobs in civil engineering at a difficult time.
But the Chancellor's road repair fund bonanza wasn't met with universal approval. The Asphalt Industry Alliance put the additional £500m a year earmarked for remediation work into perspective by calling for an investment of an additional £1.5bn a year. This, they say, is the minimum sum required over the next decade to undo years of underinvestment in the road network.
Overall, however, the budget was met with support from across the sector as Sunak's pledges for 'shovel ready' road improvement schemes and the installation of a new rapid electric vehicle charging network promised bright outcomes for Britain's road infrastructure.
In and out of fashion
From the motorway mania of the 1960s to New Labour's Ten Year Transport Plan, road building has fallen in and out of favour in the years since the founding of the Road Board in 1918. Projects such as the dualling of the A66 Trans-Pennine were first announced when John Prescott was still Minister for Transport in the early 2000s. The proposed A303 Stonehenge Tunnel was first mooted back in 2017 and since 1991 there have been 50 different proposals to calm traffic in the area.
Sunak seems to be a Chancellor with an eye towards using large infrastructure projects to reinvigorate the British economy and create jobs in civil engineering and the wider construction industry. He has a point when he says the government's manifesto pledge to level up the left-behind areas of the economy will depend on good roads and transport links. But is he investing wisely, or should he be looking towards the kind of innovative capital projects being funded by Highways England's Innovation Designated Fund?
Transitioning to new technologies
As the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS1) comes to a close, the injection of £27bn into RIS2 is welcome news for HEI projects that have actively encouraged wider engagement through the creation of the Innovation Portal. This, in turn, has brought non-traditional suppliers and SMEs into the space. Events such as a recent 24 hours Hackathon explored ideas around geolocation and geo-referencing while trials for robot road marking and self-driving trucks to speed up road repairs have seen further success.
With an emphasis on competitions and trials in RIS1, how will Highways England progress innovation into phase 2 of the funding cycle? The key will be to follow through on the successful implementation of the innovation approach believes Graham Richards, Office of Rail and Road director for planning and performance. He acknowledges that project implementation can be tricky without sharing of best practice and solid collaboration across projects.
TRL's chief scientist Peter Langdale agrees calling for a holistic approach to connectivity between databases and asset systems to drive innovation in areas including digital twin technology. This gives developers the opportunity to trial and simulate innovations without risking real-world physical assets.
A focus in the coming year is likely to be the way in which Highways England can close the gap between tolerable risk and imperfect performance and innovation where the demand for performance is high and the appetite for risk minimal.
The progress of RIS2 through the next investment cycle will be shaped by five themes: energy and environment, customer mobility, connected and autonomous vehicles such as the self-driving trucks used in the Connected and Autonomous Plant (CAP) project, operations and design and construction.
The innovations fund will also support new approaches to infrastructure and asset management, safety technology including tunnel safety and collision avoidance and improving construction techniques and materials. Better connectivity and location services and the use of data to fuel innovative information services for all road users are also planned as part of RIS2. If you add in emerging technologies related to infrastructure communications and services and connected vehicles plus improved support for sustainable operation and improved green outcomes, then the Chancellor's investment in the second phase looks to be fairly well targeted.
As a result of the proposed investment in RIS2, we are likely to see a high degree of innovation over the next 5 years. Proposed advances in data and information, emerging technologies and sustainability innovations in line with net zero 2050 targets make the future of UK highways very bright indeed.