Transport Committee: Press Notice

Session 2009-10, 30 March 2010

Publication of Report

The major road network

Better planning and new technology is the way forward to tackle congestion on major roads

The policy of transferring control of many major roads from the Highways Agency to local authorities has broadly been a success, the Transport Committee concludes in a report published today. Major roads are managed by the Highways Agency only where they are of national strategic importance, leaving other major roads to be managed in accordance with the needs of local communities.

There is a large backlog of repairs on local authority roads, and in some areas, emergency repairs are common. This is a costly and inefficient way to maintain roads. The Committee heard evidence that some local authorities spend less money on the maintenance of the major roads under their stewardship than is provided by the Government. The Committee recommends that the Government sets out clearer guidelines for what local authorities need to spend on their major roads. Local authorities also need to become more transparent about what they spend, and how that compares to Government advice. Where a strategically important, but locally managed, road needs improvement which cannot be funded by local resources, the Department should consider either transferring the road back to the Highways Agency (re-trunking), or providing additional financial resources to the relevant local authority.

The Committee concludes that the current major road network¹ needs to be used more effectively to reduce congestion at bottlenecks and at peak times. It recognises the sustainability problems inherent in using road construction as the main mechanism for managing congestion on the network, and notes that building more roads is not always the right solution to the problem. The Committee accepts, however, that it may be necessary to build and upgrade motorways in some areas which are currently poorly served. The Committee urges the Government to intensify its efforts to encourage sustainable travel as part of an integrated transport policy. It is supportive of the Government's policy to use innovative methods such as Active Traffic Management (ATM), better planning and new technology to tackle congestion on motorways, trunk roads and major A-roads. ATM includes hard-shoulder running and variable speed limits, which help to regulate the flow of traffic at busy times.²

The Committee believes the integration of different modes of transport, making it easier for travellers to choose public transport, such as trains or buses, for parts of their journey, is key to managing congestion on the major road network.

Launching the report, Committee Chair, Louise Ellman MP said, "Congestion on our major road network costs our economy enormous sums every year. The Government needs to demonstrate leadership by ensuring that a wide range of cost-effective tools are used in the fight against congestion".

The Committee also concludes that the Highways Agency and local authorities need to provide better, and more timely, information to the travelling public. This is true both where road works slow down traffic and cause congestion, and where ATM methods such as temporary speed restrictions are imposed on drivers.

Mrs Ellman MP adds: "It is vital that the public understands what is happening, and why the speed limit is lower than normal. That may be because of road works, an accident or because of congestion. We have all experienced the frustration of temporary speed restrictions, sometimes for miles, for no apparent reason. Information provided for the public needs to be comprehensive and absolutely up-to-date. Information that is out of date is no better than having no information at all".

The Committee also concludes that:

  • The Government must develop more detailed forecasts of future traffic growth so that it is better able to plan for the needs of different types of drivers in future;
  • Trunk roads should normally be dual carriageway, and the Highways Agency needs to take steps to upgrade the 900 miles of trunk roads which are currently single carriageway as soon as possible;
  • Where capacity is increased on the major road network, the Government and local authorities need to give very careful thought to the impact on other, smaller local roads, and
  • The Government's efforts to have more goods transported by rail and water are welcome, and the development of a strategic freight network needs to be beefed up.


¹ The major road network is defined by the Department for Transport as "the network of motorways, trunk roads and principal roads that serve the country's strategic transport needs." Motorways and trunk roads (nationally significant A-roads) managed by the Highways Agency make up approximately 20% of the major road network. The remaining 80% of the major road network consists of principal roads€”other A-roads managed by local authorities.

² Active Traffic Management comprises a series of measures which are aimed at reducing congestion on major roads, primarily motorways. The two main components of ATM are hard shoulder running and variable speed limits. With the former, drivers use the hard shoulder during times of peak congestion with electronic signs above each lane to help inform and direct the traffic. Variable speed limits which help to smooth the flow of traffic and prevent a stop-go pattern. Active Traffic Management was trialled on the M42 in the West Midlands from September 2006.