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Local Congestion: Investment

Volume 788: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of investments in local roads on traffic congestion and productivity in local areas.

My Lords, as set out in last year’s Transport Investment Strategy, our investment seeks to reduce congestion, raise productivity and support new housing. We estimate from investment appraisals that local major road schemes approved by the department since 2012 will produce an average of £4.50 return for every £1 invested. The department’s evaluations found that local major schemes have been successful in delivering reductions in congestion, often leading to better access to employment and local businesses.

I thank the Minister. I am glad about the investment in motorways, bypasses and some of the other things to which she refers, but do we deal adequately with local congestion, which is hitting productivity and increasing air pollution and is frustrating for those of us sitting in traffic jams? Is she aware that the challenge fund rules under which smaller councils apply for capital are costly and a bureaucratic deterrent to spending the money that the Government have rightly made available for local roads?

My noble friend raises an important point, and I know that she met recently with the Roads Ministers to discuss this. We have been investing heavily in motorways and it is right that we concentrate spending where it is needed most, but we know that other important roads have long gone underfunded. That is why we are consulting on introducing a major road network from 2020. That will provide a share of the national roads fund to invest in bypasses and road widening to help improve congestion. My noble friend also raised the point of the complexity of these processes. There are many different schemes available for additional funding to local authorities—which, of course, is welcome—but they can be complex. In last year’s Transport Investment Strategy, we committed to providing targeted support to local authorities to help develop their bidding and delivery capability in order to ensure that they get the appropriate funding.

My Lords, the Government are quite rightly pleased about the investment in motorways and I think we would all agree with that, but the cuts in local government have meant there have been massive cuts in local road expenditure. Are the Government going to do what they normally do—create a crisis and then claim credit when they do something about it?

My Lords, much of the funding for local roads is paid directly to local authorities through the direct transport funding and the local growth fund. However, we recognise that local authorities do not always have enough money to tackle the large projects which are needed to improve productivity and reduce congestion. That is why we have a number of schemes to help local authorities pay for those, such as the major road network that I have just mentioned, the pinch-point scheme and the national productivity investment fund.

My Lords, ever since Quintin Hogg, as he then was, went north in his flat cap, money has poured into the north-east. At the same time, the north-east has remained one of the poorest areas in this country. Is there a question involved there somewhere?

My Lords, there is a virtually permanent traffic jam on the A49 in Hereford. This is a vital route between north and south Wales and into the Midlands. Thousands of Hereford residents, as a result of the traffic jam, suffer dangerously poor air quality from the permanent congestion. Hereford Council has a well-worked out plan, which would involve regeneration, for a bypass. Does the Minister agree that this should be a top priority for the funding that the Government have offered for local councils?

My Lords, I agree absolutely that the funding we are making available should address exactly the problem raised by the noble Baroness. As I have said, the major road network would fit that requirement.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that dealing with congestion is not always best done through tarmac? There are tremendous opportunities in design, digital management, road pricing and public transport.

My Lords, I agree that there are many different ways in which we can tackle congestion, including bypasses, link roads, road widening and, as the noble Lord says, new smart technology could help in this.

My Lords, I do not understand why the Government do not have any sort of plan for traffic reduction. Every time you build a road, you actually encourage traffic and create more air pollution and more congestion. Why not reduce traffic?

We are looking to reduce congestion, but obviously people still need to travel and to drive to work. More than 17 million people use the roads to commute to work, and I think that we should encourage that.

My Lords, the Centre for Cities, a think tank focused on the economic benefits and development of cities, has recently questioned the effectiveness of investment in roads as a catalyst for local economic development in the light of the evaluations that have been undertaken. It suggests that the evidence is far from conclusive and comments that other ways of investing money to reduce congestion could be more effective. Can the Minister say what evaluations of the impact of investment in local roads the Government are relying on to show that such investment does represent value for money in terms of reducing congestion and increasing productivity in local areas, as compared with other ways of investing the money to achieve the same objective? Will the Government make those evaluations, on which presumably they rely, publicly available, if they have not already done so?

My Lords, I mentioned in my Answer to the original Question that the average is a return of £4.50 for every £1 invested. Our last evaluation, back in 2014, looked at how the investment we are making benefits the economy. We are carrying out a new study that will be available later this year to ensure that we are spending money wisely.

My Lords, one of the main causes of traffic congestion in towns seems to be when roads are dug up. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on the success of efforts to get the utilities to co-ordinate their digging-up-the-roads efforts?

I agree with my noble friend. I believe that around 2.5 million roadworks are carried out in England each year, which cost the economy around £4 billion. My noble friend has rightly raised the lane rental schemes which we have been trialling. They have encouraged the utilities to work together at weekends and in the evenings in order to reduce roadworks and therefore congestion. The schemes have been successful and we have seen congestion in London and Kent cut by around a half. At the end of last year we announced that these schemes will continue after the trial period, and we are consulting on extending the scheme nationwide to spread their benefits to the rest of the country. We will publish our response on that in the next few months.