The government has fixed new road schemes to be timed to have their maximum impact to gain votes from motorists in both the last general election and when people go to the polls in 2020, according to a National Audit Office report.
The investigation into the highways agency programme reveals that ministers cut short the planning period for new motorway and trunk road schemes to just 17 months so it could be timed to come out for the 2015 general election. And the present plans show the busiest period for new schemes to start will be in 2019-20 just as people are preparing to cast their votes.
The manipulation of the road scheme plans has, however, meant the ministry has over committed the number of schemes that can be built within its present budget and at least 16 may have to be scrapped because they are not value for money. Ministry officials have yet to decide which schemes might be dropped.
The report says the rush to produce a plan before the 2015 election “meant that the Department and the Highways Agency could not carry out sufficient analysis and planning to ensure that the Road Investment Strategy was affordable and deliverable, and that the projects would produce high benefits relative to costs.
“In particular, the need to develop so many new projects more or less from scratch meant that the portfolio of enhancement projects contained a high level of uncertainty from the outset.”
The report says: “The Department chose to set a capital programme which was forecast to exceed funding by £652 million.
“This ‘over-programming’ had been standard practice in the Highways Agency, as it was expected that some schemes would be delayed or drop out of the portfolio as it was refined. By August 2016, the amount by which forecast capital costs exceeded available funding had increased to £841 million.”
Among the projects that have generated extra money include £234m for Project Stack – to allow lorries to be parked on the M20 while waiting to go abroad – which will be essential if border controls are introduced as a result of Brexit. Another £161m is needed to bring forward two projects on the M62.
At the same time Highways England is expected to make savings of £1.2 billion in staffing and has so far only saved £93 million – suggesting it may not have the staff to oversee so many projects.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if they are to provide optimal value from the Road Investment Strategy”.
\“Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”