The Government’s recent announcement that it intends to invest £15 billion in the road network during the course of the next parliament will surely come as a relief to those who have had to put up with years of delays on some of the UK’s major roads.
It is estimated that the average driver spends 30 hours a year stuck in traffic – and a staggering 82 hours for Londoners – and that congestion creates costs of around £8 billion annually. It is, of course, difficult to quantify exactly the benefits of improvements to the network, but the fact that around 83 per cent of the goods in the UK are transported by road suggests that spending money on upgrading the major arterial rounds could have a significant impact on growth.
A 2012 study by the CBI reported that 84 per cent of businesses believed the state of the road network had a “significant bearing on their investment decisions”.
The Strategic Roads Network (SRN), the motorways and trunk roads managed by the Highways Agency, makes up only 3 per cent of Britain’s roads, but it carries a third of all traffic, and two thirds of freight traffic. Delays and closures on these roads can have huge implications for the wider economy, far beyond the drivers and businesses directly affected.
In his 2011 review of the SRN, Alan Cook estimated the cost of one incident alone – which closed Junction 7 of the M25 at rush hour – at £1.74 million, or £62,000 an hour.
Even without such one-offs, improvements to the quality of the SRN would produce significant cost savings for business. A five per cent reduction in all journey times for business travel would, it has been calculated, bring about savings of £2.5 billion.
The long-term benefits for growth are also clear; a strengthened road network would open up new opportunities for the regions, by creating new markets and opening up labour catchment areas. Efficient commutes for employees can also have an enormous impact on firms’ productivity and resilience. And if the manufacturing sector is to depend on an export-led recovery, improved infrastructure is essential.
What’s more, there may be short-term benefits, too. Effective construction projects are estimated to generate nearly three times their cost in benefits to the wider economy, bringing in £2.84 for every pound spent.
Another CBI report began by finding that 95 per cent of businesses thought that the road network was of vital importance, but that nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied with the current structure.
And the history of stalled projects, or of announcements of upgrades which have yet to materialise – such as work on the A14, one of the country’s most congested and frustrating roads – is patchy, to say the least. Those who use roads such as the A303, the A47 and the A27, as well as stretches of the A1, will all be hugely encouraged by the Government’s announcement that the long overdue upgrades to these vital thoroughfares are at last on the way. But they may also be sceptical about how effectively, how quickly, and at what cost, the work can be completed.
The devil, of course, will be in the detail, which will not be known until the Autumn Statement is delivered. Not least of the questions will be exactly how this programme of works is to be funded. But if it proves to be, as the Government promises, the “biggest, boldest and most far-reaching” investment in the roads for a generation, that should be welcome news not only for drivers, but for UK businesses and the wider economy.