The planning challenges posed by the new wave of English highways development

A growing number of major road projects are in the planning pipeline, Bryan Johnston discovers.

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon: major infrastructure project at nothern Bowden creating dedicated links to the M56 and roundabout links to other local road networks
A556 Knutsford to Bowdon: major infrastructure project at nothern Bowden creating dedicated links to the M56 and roundabout links to other local road networks

The next year looks set to be busy for England's roads planners, as government agency Highways England and individual highways authorities look to bring forward a significant pipeline of projects. All over the country, roads planners are consulting on new route alignments, alternative options and mitigation packages in drawing up proposals they hope will meet emerging as well as current legislative and policy requirements.

Highways England's latest delivery plan, published in August, lists 112 major improvement projects due to be taken forward under the Department for Transport's (DfT's) current roads investment strategy (RIS1), which runs from 2015 to 2020. The plan records 12 completed schemes and 14 where work has started. But many more are still at the planning stage, including an unspecified number that will need development consent orders (DCOs) under the Planning Act 2008's nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) procedure, overseen by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS).

Between 2013 and September 2016, 11 road schemes passed safely through the NSIP net. There are currently only three live road projects that have been accepted by PINS. The Testos junction improvement on Tyneside was accepted for examination in August, while a decision is due in December for improvements to junction 10A of the M20 in Kent. A decision on the Silvertown Tunnel in East London was scheduled last week, but has been postponed for a month. Meanwhile, Highways England has formally notified PINS of its intention to submit DCO applications for seven new projects next year, including the £1.6 billion A303 upgrade around Stonehenge.

These schemes are only the tip of the iceberg. Highways England confirmed last week that it is looking at bringing forward around 30 DCO applications between now and 2020, an intention that could put heavy pressure on PINS. "We have learned over the years to work flexibly, so when more applications come in we will deal with them." Michael Humphries QC, an infrastructure barrister at Francis Taylor Building, says: "If all these proposals are brought forward on similar timescales, PINS will have a major task. It's not just about getting enough inspectors but also the support staff for processing applications." Jonathan Bower, a partner at law firm Bond Dickinson, agrees that managing such "resource peaks" will be a challenge. "It would help if the examiners appointed for highway DCOs can build on experience from previous examinations, but it will be a question of managing the available resources," he says.

The NSIP procedure also faces pressure from county highways authorities' proposals. Suffolk County Council has obtained ministerial clearance to take bridge crossing proposals in Lowestoft and Ipswich through the process, even though they fall below the site area size thresholds set in government regulations. Michael Wilks, consenting manager for the projects and the Planning Officers Society's infrastructure planning specialist, says the authority expects to submit its Lowestoft proposal, on which consultation ends this month, in the first part of 2018. "The 2015 national policy statement on national networks sets a clear policy test on the need for highways infrastructure, which is really helpful to us. We chose the DCO route because it gives certainty over the decision timescale," he says.

Roads projects raise many issues, but experts say air quality has risen up the scale during preparation of the government's air quality action plan, published in July. Humphries says last year's examination of the M4 smart motorways project underlined uncertainties over traffic numbers, leading to a requirement for Highways England to monitor air quality effects and, if necessary, build in mitigation measures. Similar considerations apply to Transport for London's Silvertown Tunnel project. The decision on this scheme was delayed to allow consideration of further consultation responses on the national air quality plan. "Any breaches of environmental limits would have to be taken into account, which could mean raising toll charges," says Humphries. "But it's an open question what happens with schemes that don't involve road user charging. I expect bespoke solutions will be needed for each scheme, and that's an issue promoters need to grapple with."

Meanwhile, the DfT is lining up its second roads investment strategy (RIS2) for the period beyond 2020. In July, the DfT said that RIS2 will, for the first time, "map" local and regional housing and growth ambitions and make support for new homes one of the programme's four key objectives. "The RIS1 schemes are mainly aimed at relieving congestion and tackling existing blackspots," says Robbie Owen, head of law firm Pinsent Masons' infrastructure planning team. "The majority of the RIS2 schemes will be for economic development or to open up new areas for housing."

The case for closer coordination between highways and land-use is reflected in other emerging regional and sub-regional initiatives. The public-private Transport for the North partnership has said that its forthcoming strategic transport plan, due out for consultation later this year, will outline a major road network tied in to strategic development corridors. At sub-regional level, an east-west "expressway" is a key component of plans to link housing and economic growth with improved infrastructure across the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor. "The government might begin to look at how the development opportunities thrown up by such initiatives can deliver infrastructure on that wider scale," says Humphries. "Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy don't have the scope for big projects that open up whole areas."

Better coordination between transport and housing development is also on the agenda for government adviser the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which is working up a national infrastructure assessment setting the scene for major programmes over the next three decades. "The biggest single barrier to bringing major infrastructure schemes forward is the complexity of decision-making in a world where local planning decisions are intricately connected with county council decisions on highways and central government decisions on national infrastructure. A lot can be done to get housing and infrastructure planning better aligned," NIC chief executive Phil Graham told the Planning for Housing conference earlier this month.

Peter Geraghty, chair of the planning, housing and regeneration board at the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, welcomes this new emphasis. "Local development and local transport plans have been effective in planning for new roads, but there are areas where a more strategic approach would be beneficial," he says. "The ability to plan and implement major infrastructure across a wider area would create more certainty in preparing development plans and in financing such projects."

Major road projects in the pipeline and approved

Current and impending development consent order (DCO) applications

Silvertown Tunnel, London Promoter: Trans- port for London. Decision due November 2017.

M20 Junction 10A, Kent Promoter: Highways England. Decision due December 2017.

A19/A184 Testos Junction Improvement, Tyneside Promoter: Highways England. DCO application accepted August 2017.

A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross, Cornwall Promoter: Highways England. Application due autumn 2018.

A303 Stonehenge, Wiltshire Promoter: Highways England. Application due late 2018.

Lake Lothing Third Crossing, Suffolk Promoter: Suffolk County Council. Application due early 2018.

A2 Bean and Ebbsfleet, Kent Promoter: Highways England. Application due August 2018.

A19 Downhill Lane Junction Improvement, Tyneside Promoter: Highways England. DCO application due spring 2018.

A38 Derby Junctions Improvement Promoter: Highways England. No timetable.

A63 Castle Street Improvement, Hull Promoter: Highways England. No timetable.

M25 junction 10/A3 Wisley interchange improvement, Surrey. Promoter: Highways England. Application due August 2018.

M25 junction 28 improvements, Essex. Promoter: Highways England. Application due summer 2018.

M42 Junction 6 Improvement, West Midlands. Promoter: Highways England. Application due between July and September 2018.

Major DCOs approved

Norwich Northern Distributor Road Approved June 2015.

A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Approved May 2016.

Morpeth Northern Bypass Approved January 2015.

Heysham to M6 Approved March 2013.

A30 Temple to Higher Carblake Approved February 2015.

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon DCO approved August 2014.

M1 Junction 10a Grade Separation, Luton DCO approved October 2013.

Woodside Link, Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire DCO approved September 2014.

A160-A180 Port of Immingham Improvement DCO approved February 2015.

A19/A1058 Coast Road Junction Improvement DCO approved January 2016.

M4 Junctions 3 to 12 Smart Motorway, Berkshire DCO approved September 2016.

*Note: the article was updated at 4pm on Friday 20 October to say that Highways England "has formally notified PINS of its intention to submit DCO applications for seven new projects next year", not nine, as previously stated.

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