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Simon Emery, Senior Economic Development and Spatial Planning Manager at Highways England, discusses the importance of England’s Strategic Road Network for its economic success.

Highways England is now four years old. We were created in 2015, as an arm’s- length, government-owned company.

We’re responsible for the operation, maintenance and enhancement of England’s 4,300 miles of motorways and major A-roads. These roads – known as the Strategic Road Network – connect the country: from Carlisle to Dover, from Berwick to Penzance, and all points in between.

It’s just 60 years since the opening of Britain’s first stretch of inter-city motorway – the M1 between St Albans and Rugby – in November 1959. Built in just 18 months, this road had no lighting, no crash barriers, no central reservation – and no speed limit.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without motorways, dependant as we are on just-in-time manufacturing, foodstuffs from around the globe, and internet shopping, often with next-day delivery. Ports are obviously hugely important in that cycle.

The Strategic Road Network is one of the biggest assets in public ownership, with a book value of more than £110 billion.

“Every pound invested in the strategic network produces more than two pounds of benefit to the economy.”

England’s economic success depends on this network. It’s less than 3% of the country’s roads, yet it carries four million journeys a day, a third of all traffic, two- thirds of all freight, and three times more passengers than the entire rail network.

Our network connects every significant economic node in the country – major cities, centres of industry, ports, airports, railways and homes. Every pound invested in the strategic network produces more than two pounds of benefit to the economy.

When we set out our approach to how we support economic growth, one of the four areas we identified was providing efficient routes to global markets through international gateways.

We are investing in several road connections to international gateways to ensure they fulfil their economic potential. Our current delivery plan has a number of schemes across the country that will bring direct benefits to ports and airports. And through our regional teams, we support and work closely with individual port and airport operators.

Ports and airports across the country have significant investment programmes of their own. Port-centric developments and port capacity enhancements have the potential to reduce traffic on our roads, the former by moving the supply chain closer to ports and the latter by imports and exports entering or leaving the country closer to their final destination.

Ports and airports in particular are important employment locations in their own right, with the larger gateways employing several thousand people. As a result they are also catalysts for wider economic activity.

Since 2015 we’ve tackled 54 of the country’s worst congestion and safety hotspots and eliminated a total of 134 million hours of delay every year. We’ve also:

  • added more than 300 lane miles to our network
  • built 101 cycling schemes
  • sponsored 93 innovation projects
  • delivered 109 biodiversity projects
  • created 951 noise reduction schemes
  • and enabled the construction of 38,000 new homes

Since becoming Highways England we have delivered 40 schemes to date, network availability is above 98% and we’re clearing 88% of motorway incidents within an hour.

What does the future hold? In the 2018 autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced the Government’s intention to invest 40% more in the Strategic Road Network than in the first road period – £25.3 billion, funded by the National Roads Fund 2020-25.

Four million journeys are made on our roads every day, and usage of those roads is forecast to grow by 21% over the next two decades.

Congestion on our network costs an estimated £2 billion every year – 25% of this resulting from incidents. So, cutting congestion and helping traffic move freely creates economic benefits for the country, as well as improving safety and cutting emissions from traffic using our roads.

So, how can we possibly improve traffic flow when demand for road space continues to grow? To meet this growth and change in demand will require more use of digital technologies in the way we manage it, the way we communicate with vehicles and their users, the way we construct and use our infrastructure, and the way we manage capacity.

We cannot continue to limitlessly build new roads, so we must also make them work better. This includes adding more than 4,000 miles of extra capacity through upgrading motorways.

“Since becoming Highways England we have delivered 40 schemes to date, network availability is above 98% and we’re clearing 88% motorway incidents within an hour.”

Upgraded smart motorways mean increased road capacity faster and at less cost than traditional road widening schemes. They remain within current motorway boundaries, minimising the environmental 'footprint' of the scheme. In fact, building a road today with 25% spare capacity, and the associated land- take, would struggle to gain approval.

England’s motorways are the safest roads in the country and among the safest in the world; and smart motorways are proving to be just as safe, if not safer, as traditional motorways.

More than this, we’re making our smart motorways ‘future-proof’, so they’re ready for the connected and automated vehicles that are on the horizon.

Our vision extends beyond the next five years, laying the foundations for a road network that’s reliable, accident-free and delivers for road users, industry and communities that live alongside it.

But Highways England’s responsibility extends beyond building and maintaining roads.

We have a role to play in helping improve air quality near our network. So some of the actions we’re taking include ensuring that every scheme in our capital programme is air quality compliant, monitoring NO2 and particulates on our roads in real time to ensure our evidence base is robust and identifying areas that could benefit from air quality barriers. We’re also promoting the installation of electric charging points near our network – we are on track to meet our commitment to ensure that 95% of our network is within 20 miles of a charging point by March 2020. And we have completed 102 active travel schemes, improving health and connectivity for non-motorised users, with more to come before 2020.

We face challenging times. But we have come a long way in four years. All this improves the connectivity within England, helping to support businesses that help our nation thrive. Because connecting the country is what Highways England does.