The MRN project stemmed from a Rees Jeffreys Road Fund research project that identified a new network of roads that were not part of the Highways England strategic network but were important to the economy because they connected employment centres to transport hubs.
Last year, the Government announced its support of a MRN and proposed to make a proportion of the £6 billion funding from the hypothecated vehicle tax duty available to this new strategic road network in 2021 and I eagerly await to see what transformation this will bring.
Historically, there have been huge debates about the right way to undertake spatial and transport planning at a regional level. Now, this is beginning to change with the creation of new regional economic bodies, each with an associated transport organisation called Sub-National Transport Bodies (STBs). There are currently four STBs – Transport for the North, Midlands Connect, England’s Economic Heartland and Transport for the South East – with two more in development.
But with these new bodies come a new set of challenges. Each STB is comprised of unique stakeholders and faces different geographical, economic and social challenges to delivering MRNs. These challenges have been recognised, and WSP recently enabled the chance for STBs to discuss how they are achieving a consensus by putting robust processes in place. At a Good Practice Event held in our London headquarters earlier this summer, representatives from 20 different local highway authorities, the four STBs and Anthony Boucher, the Deputy Director for infrastructure at the Department for Transport came together to discuss the latest information and share good practices around developing a MRN.
It’s exciting to see new ideas develop that build on the original Government announcement that their investment was primarily for building a series of bypasses. But I think that the importance of increasing capacity on UK roads needs to be tackled with new technology-based solutions and always with the future in mind.
This alternative approach is particularly relevant for Southeast England where there are considerable environmental constraints – such as three national parks – to building new road infrastructure. A consultation by WSP outlined the value of applying Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) solutions to the MRN in that region. We completed a consultation that identified the benefits ITS could bring by optimising existing infrastructure, such as the A45 that stretches across the Northamptonshire and England’s Economic Heartland region.
The consultation found that ITS solutions could enable up to 35,000 new jobs and release land for 44,000 new homes over the next 15 years. In order to achieve this, a scheme would need to be created on the A45 to improve transport capacity and journey times using technology enhancements that wouldn’t require major civil engineering work. This includes CCTV coverage, queue protection, variable message signs and variable advisory speed limits.
The A45 provides an ideal testing ground for this scheme – which is based on the MRN concept – as it would alleviate congestions on this strategic road that supports the Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge corridor.
For now though, we wait for the Government’s formal response to the MRN consultation scheduled this summer, and look forward to hearing how new technology will be part of the revolution on our roads.