Out-Law News 3 min. read

UK creates unit to speed up road and rail projects

The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has launched a new unit aimed at speeding up transport infrastructure projects and programmes, focusing particularly road and rail.

The DfT’s ‘Acceleration Unit’ will be in place by September, with a team of experts tasked with tackling delays to transport infrastructure projects as well as programmes made up of several individual projects. The unit will be led by the current chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, Darren Shirley.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the unit, together with investment in roads and railways, would help the UK recover from the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, the government announced a £360 million investment in roads and railways with particular investment in the Welsh railway network.

Meanwhile, Highways England announced a £27.4 billion investment in the English road network as part of its 2020-2025 Strategic Business Plan (27 page / 6.5MB PDF). The investment includes nearly £11bn for repairs and maintenance work and over £14bn on schemes to enhance the existing network.

Specific projects include a new tunnel under the Thames between Essex and Kent, an upgrade to the A66 to create a trans-Pennine dual carriageway, and a tunnel near the Stonehenge World Heritage site.

The plans include measures to make England’s roads ready for digital traffic management and the anticipated digital future, connecting infrastructure with in-car devices.

Transport infrastructure experts from Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, welcomed the announcements.

Infrastructure expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons said the acceleration unit was one of the first tangible signs of the government’s ongoing ‘Project Speed’ initiative led by chancellor Rishi Sunak. Owen said the unit should focus on four key areas which were a consistent issue in major transport programmes and projects.

“Government needs to re-consider the speed with which it is able to approve business cases and give funding approvals for individual projects; these still seem to take too long, particularly for projects that are being taken forward by supposedly national or regional devolved bodies in England and for projects already included in an investment programme such as the Road Investment Strategy 2,” Owen said.

“It is critical that government reviews and updates the ageing suite of National Policy Statements [NPS] for nationally significant transport projects and puts in place a new and overarching NPS linked to the forthcoming national infrastructure strategy, supported by sector-specific strategies and by spatial policy for major regional transport infrastructure initiatives such as the Cambridge to Milton Keynes and Oxford arc,” Owen said.

“This will ensure that we can build back better – more sustainably and in a net zero world – and would also reduce legal risk as the current age of the NPSs is leading to an increase in judicial reviews when transport projects are approved on the basis of the NPSs,” Owen said.

Owen said further work was required to streamline planning processes for large infrastructure schemes, particularly to bring them fully into the digital age and to make the various environmental assessments and appraisals much more streamlined and efficient.

“The Development Consent Order regime under the Planning Act 2008 could be improved yet further and other planning regimes, particularly the Transport and Works Act 1992, should be reformed to require government to make decisions within a fixed timescale as they must under the Planning Act 2008,” Owen said.

Owen said other agencies also needed to be engaged in the process of accelerating transport infrastructure.

“Statutory environmental, heritage, transport, utilities and other consultative bodies – such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Network Rail – play a key part in the design, approval and delivery of transport infrastructure projects taken forward by others and yet their engagement in these projects currently leaves a lot to be desired. Government needs to review how these bodies are funded to do this important work and how the need for them to facilitate delivery of the projects, in the national interest, is hard-wired into each of their organisations,” Owen said.

Infrastructure expert Anne-Marie Friel of Pinsent Masons said Highways England’s plan focused on important areas for the future.

“There is a much welcome sense of ambition and energy within the new strategic business plan as Highways England sets out a refreshingly modern vision for investment,” Friel said.

“Industry and users alike should welcome the particular attention the plan gives to important future priorities including increased use of modern methods of construction, actions in response to the recent smart motorways stocktake, increased integration with wider transport planning and future-proofing the strategic road network for an increasingly digital future,” Friel said.

“On the back of the successful use of collaborative contracting to deliver the A14 upgrade, ahead of time and on budget, a project which we were delighted to be involved with, it is terrific to see Highways England champion the benefits of more innovative contracting models across their major programmes including the use of the NEC alliance contract on the Smart Motorways programme,” Friel said.

“The A14 project is a case study for the tangible benefits that collaborative contracting delivers and demonstrates what can be achieved when an intelligent client and their committed supply chain align themselves around common, best for project incentives,” Friel said.

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