Back in the 1990s the Major government embarked on a much heralded programme of hiving off government responsibilities into stand alone and stand apart agencies. The idea was to keep politics out of these agencies. Fears were expressed that they would become politically unaccountable and a law unto themselves. Twenty years on it looks like those fears have been realised.
Take the Highways Agency, which of course nominally comes under the remit of the Department of Transport. Ever since its inception in 1994 it has been riddled with incompetent managers, few visible leaders and a lack of strategy for the nation’s trunk road and motorway network. It has a multi-billion pound budget. Its transformation in 2015 from an agency into a government owned company, Highways England, seems to have made little difference. Like Transport for London its only goal in life seems to make it more difficult for the car driver. TFL clearly have a policy of introducing policies designed to encourage all drivers not to drive in central London, yet they don’t have the balls to admit it. How else can you explain the appalling situation along The Embankment and Upper Thames Street, or the fact that you now cannot turn left from the Embankment onto Westminster Bridge, leading to more congestion on Parliament Square as you now have to go around Parliament Square to come back onto Westminster Bridge. And to top it all, there’s now going to be a year of disruption on the bridge as separate cycle lanes are introduced. I digress, but Highways England seems to be determined to follow suit. How else can you explain the rank incompetence of closing the M3 out of London on random nights with little or no warning until you happen to get within a mile of the section that is closed off. And then you try to follow the diversion only to find out that it is so badly signed that you end up exactly where you started.
On Thursday night I drove from London to Norwich. Well, at least I tried to. Normally it takes me around two and a half hours. On Thursday it took the best part of four hours. Firstly, the overhead gantries on the M11 informed me that Junction 9 was closed. That’s the A11 junction. OK, I thought, I’ll go on to Duxford and take the A505 back onto the M11. I followed the diversion until it tried to make me head back south on the M11. Luckily I was born and brought up in that area so I knew that was ridiculous and found my way through Great Abington back onto the A11. Job done, I thought. I was wrong. On the A14 at Newmarket the gantries informed me that there was no access to the A11 north and the signs said “Find an Alternative Route”. So helpful of them. They put up those signs in the full knowledge that there isn’t an alternative route to Norwich unless you head 30 miles or so down the A14 and go via Ipswich.
When I got to the A11 turnoff I was pleased to see it was, in fact, open. I shouldn’t have been so pleased because a few miles on, at Red Lodge, the road was indeed closed and we were all diverted back heading for Newmarket. So in the end I had no alternative but to head to Ipswich and drive up the A140.
Now I totally understand that roads need repairing, but the default policy of the Highways Agency seems to be close them off completely rather than install traffic lights and leave one lane open. And they do it with little notice. I follow HighwaysEast on Twitter but I had seen no information about these roadworks. When I sent them a tweet asking them why not they said it was because they don’t tweet about roadworks, they only tweet about ongoing incidents. That’s the public sector for you. No idea about customer relations whatsoever.
Dear @HighwaysEast. You have a Twitter feed. Why didn’t you use it to tell me the A11 was shut tonight? I hate you. Love Iain.
— Iain Dale (@IainDale) March 23, 2017
@IainDale We tweet updates about live incidents affecting the network causing congestion etc. All planned works are detailed on our website.
— Highways England (@HighwaysEAST) March 24, 2017
We have reached a stage in this country where car drivers have become a persecuted minority in this country. When a government agency like the Highways Agency considers it more important to install yet more speed cameras in places where they are not needed rather than prioritise the efficiency of the road network you know you have a body that is ploughing its own furrow with little reference to its supposed political masters. This is exemplified by the fact that its senior management very rarely ever do interviews. There is no way to publicly hold them to account for their actions. They’re not even really accountable to Parliament, except, rather nominally, through government ministers.
This is why I always reject the very lazy, but populist, argument that we should take politics out of the NHS. The budget of the NHS makes the Highways Agency look rather irrelevant. But to suggest that the NHS shouldn’t be politically accountable would be to send the NHS down the route that the Highways Agency took.
It is high time the government took Highways England back under the control of ministers in Marsham Street.