Annual assessment of National Highways


This content and related publications refer to our annual assessment of National Highways.

National Highways is the government-owned company responsible for the strategic road network – the motorways and major A-roads in England.

Every year we publish an annual assessment setting out how National Highways has performed over the previous year.

We published our most recent assessment on 14 July 2022.

Our key messages focus on: safety, asset management, environmental performance and enhancements. 

We have also published three consultancy reports on: biodiversity, the central risk reserve, and non-user engagement.

Accessible version

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Below there is a link to the accessible version of Annual assessment of National Highways' performance - April 2021 to March 2022

Annual assessment 2021-22

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Video: Watch our annual assessment launch event

We welcomed stakeholders to an online launch of the annual assessment on 19 July 2022. 

Read the video transcript

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Feras Alshaker, ORR

At the Office of Rail and Road, we are the independent monitor of National Highways.  National Highways manages the strategic road network, so that is the motorways and major A roads in England. It was formed in 2015 as part of the Infrastructure Act, which set us up as their independent monitor. So that means that we hold them to account for delivery of the RIS, which the Government's five yearly road investment strategy. And we're currently in RIS2, I'm sure this is not news to everyone else. And we also hold them to account for the conditions of their licence. 

Alongside ourselves and National Highways, the Infrastructure Act set up Transport Focus to be the voice of the user and they do research into user priorities and what users want from the network. So that's sort of the scene setting, if you like, for the context. So this is our report on the end of the second year of this road period, which started in 2020. The report runs until March, the end of March this year, and covers that financial year. 

It's been a challenging year for everyone as we come out of the end of the pandemic, traffic make up has changed slightly, the peaks that we used to see, that we see at the beginning and the end of the day, people travelling to and from work are quite as sharp as they were, quite as intense as they were, but we're seeing different make up of traffic on the network as well with a bit more freight, bit more light goods vehicles than perhaps domestic cars and so on. 

The network more generally, and the weekends tend to be a bit busier, hasn't achieved the same impact that we've seen on other modes of travel like rail. So it's been quite a strong recovery for road traffic more generally. And with that setting the scene, I'm going to hand over to Harry Garnham, who is our Head of Roads performance. Harry, over to you.

Harry Garnham, ORR

Thanks Feras. Yeah. So welcome, everyone. Thanks for giving us your time this morning, or this afternoon, apologies, greatly appreciated. So I'll take you through the four key messages from our annual assessment and a little bit of an overview of where we are in terms of our forward look. So, moving on into the assessment itself, then, the first key message is around safety. And it probably goes without saying that safety remains National Highway's main priority, and we've certainly seen evidence of that throughout the year. In terms of where it's working towards, in terms of the second road period and 2025 commitments, it's working towards where it needs to be. Obviously, we've had a different year in terms of traffic levels. 

As far as summarised, we have seen a rise in terms of forecasts for killed and seriously injured on the network. Clearly that's in relation to the post pandemic / pre pandemic traffic levels that we've seen, and as traffic levels do return to normal, it's really important that National Highways continues to focus on its downward trajectory. And obviously we remain focused in terms of the zero harm ambition by 2040. 

Another key aspect around our safety is National Highways ongoing progress around smart motorways. Obviously, it remains a very sensitive area in terms of the media and a key area in terms of the delivery of the enhancements aspect, but also the on road management. And there is the safety focused Smart Motorway Action Plan with 18 plus 4 actions. And across the year we've seen National Highways progress well against delivery in that with a further 6 actions delivered. And generally speaking, it's on track. 

The slight exception there, we focus on in the key messages around action 3, the faster response to traffic officers, and in particular, the milestone there around a faster response on sections of all lane running smart motorway, where there's an emergency area greater than a mile apart, and that remains above the 10-minute target at the time of us writing the annual assessment. So there is more to do, which we will be monitoring very closely. And when we receive the 2021 KSI data from the Department in the autumn, we will be writing for the first time a specific safety report which not only concludes against performance data and the KPI around killed and seriously injured, but we'll also be a wider report looking at the safety of smart motorways and the work that we've been asked to do by the Department.

Just move on Haydn, to the next key message, which is around asset management. And we've seen some progress across the year in the company's asset management maturity. Indeed, it updated its asset management policy in May, which is a big positive, but we do still need to see more evidence that it's able to execute its asset management policy and deliver it on the ground. And specifically, we've been focused across the year on its renewals work and that the renewals work is being delivered in line with the programme the company set for itself at the start of the year. So that where it has decided that there are priority assets, we are seeing evidence that those have been treated. 

Where there has been change, you know we're in the real world here and that change is inevitable. Where there is change, we also are looking for reporting and evidence that explains the change and why certain things have had to move or indeed been brought forward into the programme. And ultimately that is a demonstration of compliance with its own asset management policy. Fundamentally, obviously, we are interested in, if you like, the tactical element of the reporting, but the bigger picture around this is the efficient use of funds so that we are getting those longer term, this whole life asset management road user benefits across not just this road period, but thinking about the next one as well.

If you go onto the next slide for me, Haydn, around environmental performance. So we've seen some varied performance aspects in the environment space. So across the year we've seen some good performance around corporate carbon, air quality and noise, and indeed, particularly on carbon emissions. We are up to around a reduction of around 59% reported, and that's against a target of 75% for the end of the road period in 2025. So there has been some good progress across these first couple of years of the road period, but it's not to say it's a blanket picture. So on biodiversity, we do have concerns that there isn't a robust plan in place that will have the company achieving no net loss by 2025. So we are looking for the company to produce something, a plan that does give us that real confidence, and that it will ultimately achieve its key performance indicator. In tandem to the annual assessment we've also published a consultancy piece around biodiversity and what's going on in that subject area. Next slide, please. Haydn.

Okay, so the fourth key message is around enhancements, or major projects, if you like. It's been fairly well reported, I guess, that a number of the most significant enhancements have had issues across the year. However, it's very noteworthy that National Highways has met its in year delivery commitments, that's both for starting works and opening for traffic. So we've seen 4 schemes actually start work on the network and 7 open to traffic and realise their benefits, which is obviously very positive. That's not the end of the journey, unfortunately. So the programme has risks attached to it. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them revolve around some of the more complex enhancements and their planning needs. And we're going to need to see a continued focus on meeting those planning requirements and ensuring that where things have to go for judgement around DCOs, they have a very robust case for the remainder of the road period. And in doing so, of course, that maximises confidence that commitments will be met to time, to budget and be able to offer the wider efficiency benefits, which, as we probably all know, are more marked in RP2 than they were in the first road period.

So those are the four key messages and just a couple of key points that we're looking ahead to. Clearly, what I've discussed here will be a main focus, but there are a couple of other noteworthy points. So, customer or the road user that is perhaps conspicuous by its absence in terms of our key messages. And you may well ask yourselves, or ask me, why is that? Because of the pandemic and the way in which the interviews are conducted, SRUS, the Strategic Roads User Survey that gathers the data that feeds the metric has been paused. As we now are moving out it's resuming in an online format, but it was felt and agreed across National Highways, the Department and ORR that it needed that longer time series of data for it to be able to be suitably robust. So it has been paused again for 22/23. We are very much committed and wanting it to resume, as I believe everyone is, wanting it to resume in 23/24 and working with all parties to try and ensure that absolutely happens.

The other thing that I've touched on perhaps as a thread throughout most of the key messages actually is the financial picture. And obviously we're all very aware of the wider financial issues that are going on, so inflation being perhaps the main headline grabber. But as we move close to the end of the road period, we're also starting to focus more on National Highways efficiency collection and making sure that it's able to mitigate some of those risks that it's experiencing around the wider finance picture and how it manages those through its central risk reserve and ultimately how it's able to deliver both the programme and also its wider KPIs. So we see that as being quite a critical area across 22/23 and one we imagine that we'll be spending a lot of time looking into. Those are the two main additional points on top of the four key messages I just want to draw out. And that's the quick run through of the annual assessment. Obviously, if you'd like to read any more in detail, it's published online on our website. Louise, I believe you're taking on the Q&A.

Louise Butcher, ORR

Yeah, thanks, Harry. Okay, so that is a quick run through as Harry says of our key message for our annual assessment and a couple of points looking ahead to the future. Does anybody have any questions, you're more than welcome to type them in the chat. Or if you've got something you want to ask directly, then please do pop up a hand. Phil.

Phil Carey, Transport Focus

Right, thank you. Hi there, Phil Carey, Transport Focus. As Harry indicated, SRUS is clearly in principle a really important part of assessing overall performance of National Highways. We have the disruption during the worst of the Covid period, but just be clear, we are very much back in business with SRUS. There still isn't a target in place through understandably cautious approach by the Department, National Highways and ORR, but we've very much producing SRUS data. Indeed, just today we've published the annual report on SRUS for the first post lockdown year, Spril 21 to March 22. I'm going to have another go, try and sort of paste a link into the chat box, otherwise I might have to sort of provide it separately to Harry and Haydn for distribution to those present. But do please have a look at that because it shows what valuable evidence is also now coming out of the new SRUS. Thanks.

Louise Butcher, ORR 

Thanks Phil, that's really helpful and interesting, I think, and really supplements the point that we were just talking about, about getting SRUS fully back on track by 2023/24. I'm going to go to David.

David Metz University College London 

Thanks, David Metz, University College London. I mean, generally an industry regulator of the kind you are will have quite a focus on the benefits to consumers of investments, but I don't see this in the work you're doing. I'm particularly concerned that a number of smart motorway schemes in particular have fallen very well short of aspiration when the outcome has been evaluated, the aspiration when the investment was made. So in the case, for example, of the smart motorway on the M1 junctions 10 to 13, the five year out to benefit cost ratio recalculated was negative because the traffic flowed more freely, more slowly five years after opening than before. So the outcome is detrimental to consumers, but this isn't something you really are looking at. My question is, shouldn't you be doing this? Shouldn't you have the user interest very much in mind in your analysis?

Harry Garnham, ORR 

Yeah, that's a good question. Thanks, David. So in terms of our role, we monitor the delivery of the Roads Investment Strategy and that is set by government and the key part of that is road user and road user benefits. In terms of our role, we aren't technically the regulator of National Highways, we are its monitor and we monitor the delivery of that through its KPIs. In terms then of smart motorway, and obviously aware of the project you mentioned specifically, we are doing a fair bit of work in terms of monitoring delivery of the capital enhancements themselves, but also looking at the action plan, which is very much safety focus for the road user. And then the final bit of that is the work we're just kicking off around supporting the Transport Select Committee in terms of their recommendations, you may be aware they made six recommendations, now ultimately they very much support the road user and the quality of output realised. So I think that is very much our role. We aren't in a space of being able to design the RIS, we monitor what's in it and the delivery of it.

Louise Butcher, ORR 

Thanks Harry. Did you want to follow up, David? You’ve still got a hand up. 

David Metz University College London 

Sorry, didn't take my hand down. But since you ask, I mean my own analysis of what's going on with smart motorway schemes is that there's a lot more local users compared with the long distance users where the real economic benefit is supposed to derive. And this increase in local use I think is facilitated by the widespread use of satnav devices. So you get junction hopping, you hop onto a section of the motorway for your home to work trip, for example, and you're using capacity that was intended for long distance users. And I think this is probably a general phenomenon because the strategic road network comes under greatest stress in or near built up areas where you've got this mixture of local and long distance traffic remote from built up areas. I mean, mostly it flows fairly freely. 

So I think we do need to look much harder at nature of the benefits to road users to see whether continued investment and enhancement is really justified. Now, whether it's the work of the ORR or not, I'm not sure, but it should be someone's job to do this. It's not National Highways because they're a main player, it's not something the department seems open to. It could be the ORR. If you could see your way to enlarge your brief a bit, but if not too. But it is work that I think needs to be done.

Harry Garnham, ORR

Yes, indeed, David, and perhaps just to your point there about different user groups using smart motorways, using the network in general is very much a valid one. And perhaps I should have also added National Highways has done a fair bit of public-facing educational campaigns, so their Go Left campaign and we're looking to understand what it plans to do further, indeed the benefits or the data that it's managed to glean from that Go Left campaign. So I think there's an educational facet to this in terms of making sure that if people do choose to use the smart motorway network, they have that knowledge of how it works and the various new signs and signals that they will see. Phil, did you just want to say something? 

Phil Carey, Transport Focus

I might as well just seize the opportunity, if you don't mind. David, thank you very much for highlighting the importance of user benefits and as Transport Focus is part of the partnership with government, with a specific role to represent the interests of users of the SRN, I better just say a couple of things. As far as smart motorways are concerned, we're building up sufficient data within SRUS such that I think within the coming year we will start to be able to single out the user experience of satisfaction with some of the main smart motorway stretches, which I think would be a valuable step forward. But in terms of more broadly assessing impacts on the user, Transport Focus has been a very active part of formulating the RIS2 performance specification in the first place. And we are clear and confident that there's an important user dimension to many of the other metrics on which ORR are reporting the information, obviously the delay performance. So even without SRUS being in the formal assessment, I think there is a good focus on the user dimension to National Highways performance.

Harry Garnham, ORR

Yes, Sharon rightly reminded me in the chat, reminded us all. But there is also the point there around government's decision to pause projects, smart motorway projects and construction whilst more safety data comes online. And that then links to Sharon's point in the chat around the post opening project evaluation. So both the one and five year, which should give us a better picture of both road user adoption, but also whether or not the business cases are being realised or not. Thanks for that, David. Louise or anyone else?

Louise Butcher, ORR 

Anybody else want to ask a question? Billy?

Billy Parr – Essex County Council

Thanks very much. Harry, you mentioned that in delivering enhancements to the network planning issues represent an ongoing risk to delivery, particularly where schemes are required to go through the development consent order process. I just wondered if you could expand a little bit on what you think those issues are and what National Highways could be doing to mitigate some of those issues. Thanks.

Harry Garnham, ORR

Yeah, sure. So they're not issues that National Highways itself isn't aware of, where there is a more complex portfolio, which is what we have in RP2 compared to the first road period. There is a need for more in depth stakeholder engagement and that evidence has been key to a number of DCO decisions and also key to the judicial review period as and when things have gone to that point and we obviously have seen headline obviously being the LTC, but things get moved in the programme as a result of concerns over planning conditions. So it's not a new risk, but it does continue. We do have an enhancements programme that is quite back end loaded in terms of start of works and we also have a number of highly complex projects still to start, so it's a kind of double effect there - more of them, less time, and also the complexity. I mean, the good news, of course, is we are starting in this financial year 22/23, we have started to see some movement. We've seen several DCOs approved by the Secretary of State and three more pass through the judicial challenge period where they may have gone to judicial review.

So I think we're seeing an improvement there. But clearly, until we've got all of those schemes through the critical time period, in terms of getting them onto the network and starting works, we want to keep behind that.

Billy Parr – Essex County Council

Thank you, Harry, that's really helpful. I just add to that it's not perhaps just an issue that's unique to the National Highways either. I think there are some issues there that go back to the Planning Act 2008 and the infrastructure planning regime. So there's some sort of common issues that I think government are looking at at a moment too. Thank you.

Louise Butcher, ORR 

Thanks, Billy. Anybody else got a question, anything you wanted to ask? As a reminder for those of you who came in late, we ran through our four key messages which are around safety, asset management, environmental performance and enhancements. So is there anything in any of those areas anyone particularly wanted to ask about? Okay, Haydn, if you want to go onto the next slide, we have a team email box. So if you have any questions that occur to you afterwards, particularly any technical questions that might require a bit more thought or elaboration that you wanted to put to us, please send it through to our Highways Monitor email address, which is in the chat and also in the slide. There will also be some social media going out this afternoon and as Haydn said, we will be putting this seminar on our YouTube channel as well. So if there is nothing else that anybody wants to ask about, I'm going to say thank you to our panel. Thank you to Feras, to Harry, to Haydn. And thank you all for coming. I hope you found it useful. And have a good afternoon. 

Additional publications and previous assessments are listed below. For earlier publications visit the National Archives.