There’s no doubt that 2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging year already for many, with the coronavirus outbreak impacting everyday life and of course how our road network was used.
As lockdown was introduced we saw fewer people travelling and our roads became quieter but Highways England had a vital role to play in making sure that critical workers and essential supplies could keep moving.
As Highways Monitor, we have been in regular contact with them during the pandemic because it remains as important as ever that Highways England delivers efficiently and effectively and that ORR provides independent scrutiny for funders, road users and communities.
In April, the start of the second road funding period was overshadowed by the pandemic but as we transitioned from the first five-year road period to the second, it has, in some regards made identifying the impacts on monitoring Highways England’s delivery clearer.
Our framework for holding Highways England to account is flexible, and we will use this flexibility so that we can take into account the extraordinary situation the company faces and focus activity in the most proportionate and efficient way possible.
On 1 June we wrote to Highways England informing the company of how we will hold it to account. However, as the situation remains fluid, the precise timeframes will depend on wider government decisions, such as the initial response to the pandemic and returning to ‘normal’ operation.
Acting with speed
Highways England has acted with speed and decisiveness in response to the pandemic so far. The company has established its strategic intent for delivery during the current restrictions and we agree that these are the right areas of focus.
As Highways England returns to a ‘steady-state’ of operation, we will focus on four elements, which include planning for maintenance, renewal and enhancement activity; explanation and quantification of the impact of the pandemic on performance and efficiency; planning to mitigate risks to customer service; and collaborative working with industry and stakeholders.
We have not made any assumptions on the long-term impacts of the pandemic on factors such as travel demand or government policy, as these will only become apparent over time, there are a number of known factors that could affect the performance specification – which is the key basis from which we monitor.
However, at an appropriate point Highways England, DfT and ORR will need to jointly take stock of the five-year plan for both the remainder of the road period and beyond.