‘Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off’ – that was a headline in The Times during Edwardian times. It signalled the high-handed, rather superior attitude we had (and possibly still have!) to our continental cousins. There is nowadays a modern day equivalent, courtesy of a government agency called Highways England. And it reads ‘Roadworks on the A11 – Norfolk Cut Off’. Let me explain.
On a recent bank holiday Friday, not only did Highways close the M11 and Junction 7 (Harlow), just for good measure they also closed the A11 at the junction of the A14 at Newmarket in order to carry out apparently long planned roadworks.
It doesn’t take Einstein that traffic to Norfolk on a Friday night, let alone a Friday on a bank holiday weekend, is heavier than normal, yet Highways England thought it appropriate to close both the roads that lead to Norfolk.
Not only that, but there were no signs on the A14 to tell you that you wouldn’t be able to take the Norwich turnoff. Indeed, you were, until a couple of miles later you had to do a U-Turn at Red Lodge, which then took you all the way back to Newmarket, before having to do a U turn again. I ended up heading towards Ipswich and taking the A140.
This was not a one-off occurrence. Barely a week passes nowadays with the A11 or the A14 being shut, often with very little advance notice. This month the A11 is to be wholly closed or partially closed on occasion in order to facilitate signage changes. This never used to happen, or if it did it would be incredibly rare. Barely a weekend goes by without some part of the road being closed. The A14 between Ipswich and Cambridge is little better, with long overnight closures being imposed for nights on end, and with increasing regularity
Agencies like Highways England were formed in the 1990s, ostensibly to take the politics out of the running of areas like roads. The experiment hasn’t worked. These agencies seem accountable to no one. Being one step removed from the Department of Transport means that politicians can’t impose their will in the way that they could do when roads were run from Westminster. People who say the politicians should be taken out of running the Health Service should be very careful what they wish for. Do we really want £140 billion of taxpayers’ money being spent with no political accountability whatsoever?
When I complained to the Highways Agency about what was happening, I was told I’d get a reply within three weeks. After a reminder I received a reply more than a month later. The only trouble was, the reply bore no relation to my original complaint. Eventually they trotted out the hoary old chestnut of having to close both roads due to public safety issues. Isn’t in strange in more than four decades of travelling up and down the A11 and A14, it’s only in recent years that both roads have been closed totally, rather than only one lane.
When I was pursuing a political career, my ambition was to be a transport minister. You might think that displayed limited ambition, but I disagree. If you’re a Transport minister you can often actually effect change, rather than just utter warm words.
However nowadays it’s a bit of a thankless task. Chris Grayling, the increasingly hapless looking Secretary of State for Transport, is blamed for everything that goes wrong on the roads, railways and at our airports, yet in our agency dominated and privatised transport system, he has very little influence over much of the transport system, let alone control.
I think it’s about time we looked again at agencies like Highways England and how they operate. They treat their clients – motorists – with utter contempt and they appear unaccountable for their actions.
It’s time to bring them back under political control, so we can genuinely hold Transport Ministers to account for their decisions.