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On the road to efficiency

Smart motorways are helping to increase the capacity of our roads without the need to acquire more land

 If commerce is the lifeblood of the nation, then our roads are the UK’s veins and arteries. Unlike any other form of transport infrastructure, the road network is extraordinarily pervasive. Roads link the centres of our greatest cities to the fringes of our smallest villages.

Rightly, the government is focused upon positive outcomes for those who rely on the nation’s road network. This requires a strategy that meets 21st-century needs in terms of reducing congestion and improving journey reliability, while guarding the safety and quality of the road network.

Positive steps are being taken at a national level to improve our major highways. Last year the government committed to spending £15.1bn on the UK’s strategic roads by 2021. This investment will fund improvements to increase capacity on the UK’s busiest motorways and allow the completion of 52 national road projects.

There is a similar tonic in store for smaller roads. Importantly, last year’s government funding also included £6bn for local authorities to maintain and improve the condition of existing local infrastructure.

Improving the road network doesn’t necessarily require new highways across the green belt. Today, the combination of new capabilities and human ingenuity offers exciting alternatives that minimise the impact on the natural environment.

One example of strategic thinking, pragmatism and the application of clever technology is the Highways Agency’s Smart Motorways initiative. Rather than undertaking the costly and disruptive task of widening roads, the Smart Motorways programme employs the hard shoulder as an extra lane, together with variable speed limits to manage the flow of traffic at the busiest sections. This approach minimises the need to acquire land for road expansion, while the increased capacity and reduced congestion bring environmental benefits.

Similar technology is now also being applied to the Mersey Gateway Bridge Project, one of the UK’s largest planned infrastructure projects. Mersey Gateway will be a major new transport route linking the Liverpool city region, north Cheshire and the north-west to the rest of the country.

The regional economic strategy identifies Mersey Gateway as a catalyst that will effectively connect communities and lead regeneration and investment throughout the north-west.

Mersey Gateway has been made possible by unlocking private investment, aided by strong support via government commitments and in close collaboration with regional authorities. It provides a fantastic example of how the use of innovative techniques and better collaboration between the public and private sector on road infrastructure can deliver real value for money for taxpayers.

Further afield in Sweden, we can find other innovations in design and technology that hold great promise for improving the UK’s road network. Stockholm Bypass is a new motorway link that connects the north and south of the Swedish capital, relieving city centre traffic. Most of the route will be underground, contained within the most extensive road tunnels in the world, with a total length exceeding 50km. The new bypass will comprise two parallel road tunnels, carrying traffic in opposite directions. Both tunnels will be large enough to carry three lanes, increasing to four at the six interchanges along the route.

Whether or not the UK follows the example of Stockholm, there are still positive signs of long-term commitment and substantial investment from the government. The funding announced last year will give the impetus needed to revitalise a road network nearly at maximum capacity. Now, it is up to the private sector to help government fulfil its ambition to build a more resilient national roads infrastructure that can meet future capacity demands. Success will require a mix of innovative approaches and technologies that deliver quick wins in the short term, combined with the stronger public and private collaboration that will deliver value for money in the longer term.

 Paul Bracegirdle is the UK director for roads at URS

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.