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Theresa Villiers: Our plan for Britain's road network

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be able to take part in the New Cvil Engineer's road summit today.

Before addressing the main themes of my speech, I'd like to say a little about grit.

The severe weather the country has experienced in December and January gave us all a salutary reminder of the pivotal importance of our road network.

I would like to pay tribute to all the councils, council workers, salt producers, police and others who worked so hard to try to keep the country moving during the crisis.

Everyone accepts that a degree of disruption is inevitable when this kind of weather hits, but the Government has important questions to answer about the adequacy of the preparations it made.

It is not acceptable to pass the buck to local authorities. The Government must accept their share of responsibility for the shortage of gritting salt that occurred. The LGA warned the Government in the Summer that the country is far too reliant on just two suppliers of suppliers.

But the Government took no action.

Indeed they didn't even to respond to the LGA report, which was published in July, until two days before the first major snowfalls. I believe this significantly undermined the ability of local councils to grit and clear side roads and pavements left our road network more vulnerable to disruption than it should have been. This was to the detriment of families and businesses up and down the country already struggling with the impact of one of the longest and deepest recession in modern history.

But even though the thaw came to the rescue as salt supply dwindled, we all know that the bill for tackling this crisis will fall with a heavy thud on the desks of local authorities up and down the country, as they count the cost of freezing conditions in terms of even bigger bills for tackling road maintenance.

But turning to the broader questions I would like to address today, it is self-evident that the everyday hassle that so often comes with just trying to get around in this country impacts negatively on family life on working life and on economic competitiveness.

It plays a significant part in making life under Labour feel so grim.

This Government that has broken every significant promise they have made on congestion. Whenever it's become clear that their targets will not be met, they have simply dropped them or moved the goal posts and changed the means of measure them-or both.

Ladies and Gentleman, we can't go on like this.

We need change to get this country back on its feet.

So I want to outline today some of our plans for Britain's road network.

Debates over recent years have focused almost exclusively on two issues: road pricing and road building.

But we need a fresh approach that looks at the whole picture, not just where or whether we build new capacity but how we get the most from our existing road space.

Let's face it, many of the issues that affect our roads every day-how we run traffic lights, the time it takes to reopen motorways after incidents, how we deal with road works-these issues are never going to grab the headlines or set the world on fire but, you know what?

They matter. They matter to our economy and to our quality of life. And we need a Government that's finally going to take them seriously.

Secondly, we need a graduated approach which emphasises the importance of applying distinctive policy solutions to different types of road.

Whether its decisions on road works, or road space, or the trade offs between different user groups, we will never get the most out of our network unless we acknowledge that the best policy solution may vary dramatically across the spectrum from major car based corridors to localised pedestrian dominated streets.

Thirdly, we need to harness new technology to try to mitigate congestion problems.

Fourthly, we need a fresh focus on the reliability and predictability of journey times rather than focusing solely on just trying to speed them up.

Fifthly, we need to change the way our roads are run to make decision-making more localised, more transparent, and more accountable. To address the sense of powerlessness that road-users so often feel in the face of opaque decisions, which can have a huge impact on their daily commute, but over which they are given no say and for which they are often given no explanation.

And finally, cutting across all of these five themes is the need to keep in mind the interests or all road users in formulating our approach: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, bus passengers, motorbike riders, and haulage companies and the business they serve as well.

And there is no denying that difficult decisions will always have to be made on how road space is divided up, particularly if we are to deliver the priority measures that I believe are so important for improving life for bus passengers and cyclists.

But there's so much more that could be done which could reduce driver hassle without treating other road users unfairly. Attempts to force people out of their cars by deliberately trying to make driving a miserable experience is misguided, economically damaging and counter-productive.

So how would a Conservative Government apply these principles in practice?

And how can we do this against a background of budget cuts and a looming climate change crisis?

Let me make it plain, first of all, that I don't believe that Labour's national road pricing scheme is the answer. Their misguided plan for a spy-in-the sky to track every vehicle on every road 24 hours a day was unwanted and unnecessary. No one should underestimate the significant project management risks associated with procuring one of the biggest IT projects the world has ever seen. And we would all of us be unwise to ignore the signal sent by a 78% "no vote" in Manchester.

That said, there is a role for road pricing in addressing one long standing transport problem-the plight of Britain's haulage industry.

The food on our table, the clothes on our back, the shoes on our feet, before it gets to us, virtually every item any of us will ever use or consume during our entire lifetime will have spent time in a lorry or a van pounding along the UK's overstretched road network.

Yet our nation's domestic haulage industry was on its knees even before the recession. Family firms have been going out of business around the country.
For too long, British hauliers have faced fiercer and fiercer competition from foreign companies who fill up with cheap fuel abroad, and pay no taxes at all to the UK Exchequer.

Labour promised to tackle this problem 8 years ago and have wholly failed to deliver.  We are determined that we will sort this out once and for all so all trucks which use our roads pay their fair share of tax for the wear tear they inflict. And we will use lorry road user charging to do it.

And moving on to road building, I should make clear that we recognise the economic importance of addressing the country's worst road bottlenecks. Sometimes those pinch points can be addressed by making better use of the capacity we already have. In other cases, new capacity may be needed: junction improvements, dualling, or in some instances, new roads or bypasses.

However, I must emphasise that we would only ever embark on new road projects where doing so is consistent with a responsible approach to the public finances. The crisis in the public finances that the Conservatives will inherit if we win the general election will place obvious limitations on what we can deliver in terms of new road projects, in addition, of course, to the environmental safeguards provided by the planning process.

So the debt crisis makes it more important than ever to improve value for money when it comes to building and maintaining roads. Just a few months ago, the Highways Agency came under sustained criticism from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.

Costs have risen significantly and by no means all of this increase can be convincingly attributed to changes to the nature of work required. The NAO concluded that routine maintenance costs have risen by 11% above inflation over the last 7 years with a 70% increase in the cost of road resurfacing over the same period. And it remains a significant concern that resurfacing costs £17 per metre on some parts of the Agency's road network and twice as much elsewhere.

So both the public sector and private sector need to improve efficiency in the way road related projects and maintenance are delivered. We all need to develop ways to deliver more for less. And benchmarking against best practice in other countries will be an important component of efforts to do this.

But while efforts to ensure that the Highways Agency gets a better deal for the taxpayer when it lets its contracts are important, the catastrophic state of the nation's balance sheet gives new urgency to efforts to reform transport appraisal so that we choose the right projects on which to spend the limited resources available.

Taking just one example, it makes no sense whatsoever that generating more car journeys is marked as a benefit when schemes are assessed by NATA because of additional fuel duty paid. I am pleased to see the concerted campaign on this point by the Green Alliance and the Campaign for Better Transport and others has pushed the Government into announcing plans to change this. However, there are further important reforms that need to be made if the merits of the projects that offer the greatest carbon savings are to be given the recognition they merit, and if we are to persuade decision-makers to assess a range of options for tackling congestion.

And, of course, the strain on the public finances also means that it is more important than ever that we make the best possible use of the road space we already have, road space which is both a precious and a limited resource.
 
At last year's Conservative party conference, I announced proposals to address unnecessary driver hassle and to make the better use of our roads.

Our plans draw on four concepts which are the hallmarks of what David Cameron has called the Post-Bureaucratic age: technology, decentralisation, transparency and accountability.

Taking each in turn, time constraints prevent me from examining all the many ways in which we could use technology to help address the perennial problems associated with our transport system. And clearly the budget crisis will place limits on the money available for such programmes.

But I should state clearly that I welcome the work that the current Government has done on managed motorways and hard shoulder running, although I am sceptical as to whether the taxpayer has always received the best deal on these projects. 

Clearly new technology also has huge benefits to offer in terms of giving drivers and other road-users access to information about potential disruption to their journeys with, for example, more sophisticated in-car information and bus tracking technology. And of course technology holds out real hope when it comes to making our roads safer not least when it comes to protecting groups at risk like motorbike riders. That is why the Conservatives are gathering together representatives from the public and private sector on Monday next week to see how we can work together to make the best use possible of technological advances in traffic management.

Turning secondly to issues around decentralisation-a recurring concern from local authorities is the inflexibility they face from Whitehall when they wish to innovate and try out new ways to make traffic flow more smoothly. For example, it took one London local authority two years to obtain permission to pilot a sign that said "No entry except for cyclists".

And before they got that permission, they had to put up DfT recommended signs which they were convinced drivers wouldn't understand, monitor them to show they didn't work, and when they didn't work, apply for permission all over again to use the sign they wanted in the first place.  West Sussex Council had an application for a parking scheme held up because the DfT apparently refused to look at their plans until it was determined whether they were "The West Sussex County Council"-with a definite article-or simply "West Sussex County Council" without one. 

It took months for City Hall to get permission to pilot pedestrian countdown for traffic signals, and they are still not allowed to pilot their proposals to allow cyclists to turn left on red. Yes, of course, maintaining an appropriate level of national consistency will always be important for road signs and road management, but it should still be possible to maintain that and still give local authorities more flexibility to innovate and respond to local circumstances in the way they run their roads.

A Conservative Government would endeavour to give them that.

And a Conservative Government would also want to inject more transparency into the way our roads are managed. 

Take traffic signals, for example. The epidemic of new traffic signals in recent years has led to real anxiety that they have been used to deliberately cause congestion and clog up traffic.  Although the Livingstone administration in London appeared to be the most extreme example, the problem has not been confined to the capital.

Last October saw the launch of the "Put that light out" campaign by the Bristol Evening Post from a city fed up with mushrooming numbers of traffic lights. The campaign cites the kind of example of which we've all heard where traffic flowed more smoothly when Conservative-run North Somerset Council took the enlightened decision to turn off traffic signals in Portishead.

My colleague Robert Goodwill has a similar example of what happened when the lights went out in Scarborough, and I have one from my very own constituency in Chipping Barnet where traffic lights at the junction of East Barnet Road and Victoria Road were removed. Now I know this evidence is anecdotal and that these kinds of stories can sometimes blend into urban myth.

But there is enough substance to them and enough justified public concern to cause all of us to look again at how we approach traffic signal policy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for some drastic cull. But given the huge impact they can have on traffic flow and on pedestrian safety, is it too much to ask for those in charge of traffic lights to publish clear criteria, based on evidence, to determine where they go and how they're timed?

So if a new set of lights starts clogging up your high street, you can find out why. You can hold those responsible to account. And whether you are a pedestrian, a cyclist, or a driver, you can have a say on whether those lights stay or whether they go.

I hope and expect that the public debate that transparency and accountability  generate will increase the uptake of new technology and new thinking on traffic signals, including rephasing and removal of unnecessary sets of signals where appropriate.

And a more transparent approach to the ways our roads are run can help us address another important issue regarding the way we manage our roads, namely, the time it takes to clear up after traffic collisions on major roads and the motorways. 

The increasing disruption caused by these closures is the cause of serious concern. They can wreak havoc on whole regional economies. The mayhem caused by the 24 hour closure A12 in 2007 remains notorious across much of the east of England.

There is also a safety issue. These closures also increase the risk of rear end collisions and they divert large volumes of traffic on to rural A-roads with a far weaker safety record than motorways. So it will be a priority for a Conservative Government to work with the police to get the full facts on motorway clear-up times, so we can be certain that everything is being done that reasonably can be done to minimise delays.

The public should be able to find out if their area suffers from delays than the rest of the country so they can hold those responsible to account. And we need to find ways to use signage and in-car information more effectively to give drivers a chance to alter their travel plans before they find themselves stuck in a jam.

I also believe that we should see if any best practice can be imported from the British Transport Police who have an admirable record in investigating incidents on our rail network in a timely and efficient manner.

And we need more accountability over the decisions that affect the daily commutes of millions of people across the country.

For a start, we'll make the people who dig up our roads answer for their actions. Recent research by the Asphalt Industry Association concluded that two million holes were dug in our roads in the 12 months up to April 2009.  The DfT predict that the number of road works is set to rise, with major work continuing on renovating our Victorian sewerage system and TV and telecom firms continuing to expand the networks that are so important to our information-hungry digital economy. It remains a perennial concern utilities can rip up the roads with little or no warning, and with scant regard to the impact on congestion or the economic cost that imposes. 

We desperately need to address the self evident problems caused by the fact that the utilities who take the decisions about where, when, and how long to take digging up the roads do not bear any of the economic cost of the congestion they cause.

So we'll crack down on anyone that takes an irresponsible approach to road works without regard for the travel misery they can cause.

That means bigger fines for work that overruns. It means extending the Code of Conduct pioneered successfully in London by the Mayor and the National Joint Utilities Group. It means more permit schemes to follow the example set in London and Kent, where utilities have to apply for the right to dig up the roads, giving the highway authority a better chance to coordinate them, to try minimise the disruption they cause and to get different companies working in the same trench.

And for our busiest most important routes, it means making the utilities pay to rent the road space they dig up. So they finally have a real incentive to run their work efficiently and minimise the disruption that can impact on all road users: drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. It's a simple idea. It's been discussed for years. Nothing else has worked.It's time to get on with it.

But a strategy for our roads is not complete without measures to address demand for road transport. Just because I reject the Government's ill-conceived proposal for a national road pricing scheme doesn't mean I under-estimate the importance of this issue for addressing climate change and congestion.

But rather than trying to bully motorists, I want to make it easier for people to leave the car at home more often. That means giving them a more attractive alternative to the car for some of the millions of journeys made on our roads every day.

So we need to redouble our efforts to improve public transport to encourage modal switch.  And we also need to take seriously the potential of the programmes grouped together under the "smarter choices" rubric. This term covers programmes to encourage modal shift as well as well efforts to promote behavioural change and cut down on the need for work-related travel. So that includes school and workplace travel plans, as well as projects to encourage cycling and walking. Initiatives to make low carbon modes easier to use, such as oyster style smart ticketing and provision of real-time information about routes and timetables are also pivotal.

It is well known that companies like BT have achieved dramatic reductions in their carbon footprint through these kinds of initiatives to encourage their employees to cycle or car-share or work from home and cut out the daily commute altogether.

I believe that this type of initiative can play both an essential part of the battle to combat climate change and they should also be an important component of our efforts to relieve the irritation and hassle caused by traffic jams and help unclog the road transport arteries which are so vital to our economic competitiveness.

I firmly believe that many low carbon transport projects, including those focussed on behavioural change, can deliver impressive value for money. That is one of the reasons why I want to see NATA reformed in the way I have already mentioned.

But that isn't enough.

We also need to reform the congestion charging strand of the Transport Innovation Fund to turn it into a Transport Carbon Reduction fund.

So we have promised to scrap the controversial requirement that no bids will be seriously considered which don't include a congestion charging element. We would free the funds available for local authorities and voluntary groups to bid money for the low carbon transport schemes best suited to the needs of their local area, whether they include a charging element or whether they do not.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, we all know that the relationship between the British and their roads hasn't always been an easy one.

Indeed, this is not a new phenomenon.

For centuries, British travellers complained unremittingly about what Daniel Defoe bemoaned in the 18th century as:

"the exceeding badness of the roads."

That is until Thomas Telford and John Macadam's revolutionary techniques tackled the bogs and wheel ruts that had plagued the nation's roads since the Romans packed their bags and went home in the fifth century, taking their highways engineers with them.

We all know that potholes remain an issue to this day, but it takes a crisis of the sort triggered by the fuel tax protests in 2000 to make us realise just how important our roads really are, and how quickly our economy would grinds to a complete halt without the flow of goods and people along these vital arteries.

Joe Moran sums this up in rather dramatic terms in his recent book on the cultural significance of roads with the words:

".... the minutely synchronised routines of just-in-time capitalism render us one gigantic traffic jam away from social anarchy."

So, ladies and gentlemen, you and the companies you represent and all the others across Britain responsible for keeping our roads open and operational do vital work in standing between this country and paralysis.

I thank you for that work and if the Conservatives are elected to serve this country as its government we would value the efforts you make to keep the nation moving.

Thank you

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