UK Government slammed for proposed £7m Highways England rebrand


Highways England is being rebranded as National Highways in a £7 million Government-led move that has sparked outrage.

The switch comes just five years after the government-owned company was renamed from Highways Agency on 1 April 2015 – a rebranding exercise that was completed not long ago.

The timing of the decision has been heavily criticised by the Labour Party and described by Plaid Cymru as ‘self-aggrandising and offensive’.

Rebranding: The Government has been slammed for a proposed £7 million brand for Highways England, just 5 years after an expensive renaming from Highways Agency

Rebranding: The Government has been slammed for a proposed £7 million brand for Highways England, just 5 years after an expensive renaming from Highways Agency

Government sources indicated that the plan aims to reflect the agency’s strategic importance, although no final decisions have been made.

The company, which is responsible for the strategic road network of motorways and major A-roads – and controversially the roll-out of smart motorway conversions across England in recent years – is understood to have only recently completed the updating of signage from its last name change half a decade ago.

With a rebranding comes the multimillion-pound burden of having to update brochures, roadworks signs, public documents, works vehicles and other infrastructure owned by the firm.

Speaking to The Guardian, Labour officials said the move was ‘perplexing’, especially with the economy struggling to cope under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government negotiating substantial bailout packages for regions being placed into tier three lockdowns.

Matt Rodda, Labour’s shadow roads minister, told the newspaper: ‘At a time of national crisis, going through a national rebranding five years after the last one will be perplexing and seem a potential waste of taxpayer money to most people. 

‘The government need to justify why they are doing this and how they came to the decision on the new name.’ 

BBC Panorama revealed earlier this year that 38 people have been killed on sections of smart motorway in the last five years

BBC Panorama revealed earlier this year that 38 people have been killed on sections of smart motorway in the last five years

Highways England officials had repeatedly claimed smart motorways were safer than traditional motorways before the BBC investigation came to light

Highways England officials had repeatedly claimed smart motorways were safer than traditional motorways before the BBC investigation came to light 

A Welsh government source told The Guardian the decision would unnecessarily confuse people as to ‘where responsibility for roads lies – in Wales, with the Welsh government’. 

Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said: ‘Given this Westminster Government’s obsession with rowing back our devolution settlement, this rebrand is wrong, self-aggrandising and offensive.

‘Regardless of the UK Government’s moves to undermine Welsh powers through the UK Internal Market Bill, the fact remains that powers over the operation and maintenance of highways are fully devolved.

‘It is beyond baffling that the UK Government has to be reminded of this fact, over 20 years since the establishment of devolution. It is high time that the Tories accept reality and keep their hands off our devolved powers.’  

Seven new smart motorway upgrades are due to take place on the M6, M62, M56, the M40 and M42 interchange, the A1(M), part of the M25 and the M3

Seven new smart motorway upgrades are due to take place on the M6, M62, M56, the M40 and M42 interchange, the A1(M), part of the M25 and the M3

Highways England is responsible for maintaining and improving motorways and major A roads in England, and is overseeing a £27 billion five-year investment programme that includes the conversion of seven routes into smart motorways.

These smart routes remove the hard shoulder to increase lane capacity to theoretically reduce congestion and instead feature emergency refuge areas.   

However, these can be up to two-and-a-half miles apart, and as a result can leave stricken motorists stranded in live lanes.

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Data obtained by the Daily Mail earlier this year also showed they made traffic jams worse if there was an incident. 

Smart motorways have in recent months been coined ‘death-traps’ by police leaders following a spate of avoidable fatalities. 

BBC Panorama revealed in an investigation in January that 38 people had been killed on smart motorways in the previous five years.

They have been shown to cause a rise in serious accidents, with one stretch of road going from one crash a year to six after the hard shoulder was removed, figures revealed earlier this month show. 

Labour officials said the move was 'perplexing', especially with the economy struggling to cope under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government negotiating substantial bailout packages for regions being placed into tier three lockdowns

Labour officials said the move was ‘perplexing’, especially with the economy struggling to cope under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government negotiating substantial bailout packages for regions being placed into tier three lockdowns

Smart motorways do away with a hard shoulder and instead have Emergency Refuge Areas. However, these EFAs can be up to 2.5-miles apart, leaving broken-down motorists stranded in live lanes

Smart motorways do away with a hard shoulder and instead have Emergency Refuge Areas. However, these EFAs can be up to 2.5-miles apart, leaving broken-down motorists stranded in live lanes

The M1 in West Yorkshire saw an average of 1.3 serious crashes between junctions 39 and 42 each year before the change was made, but this rose to five in the year after.

A judge ruled last week that two men killed in a collision with an 18-tonne lorry on a stretch of the M1 smart motorway would still be alive if there had been a hard shoulder as he sentenced the HGV driver to 10 months in jail.

Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died when a lorry ploughed into their stationary vehicles near Sheffield after they were involved in a ‘minor shunt’.

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Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba, 40, admitted two counts of causing death by driving without due care and attention over the 56mph crash which happened in June 2019.

Statistics have also shown that the M6 in the West Midlands between junctions 10a and 13 had one serious accident on average each year prior to the change, but six in the following year when the conversion to a smart motorway was completed.

Transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was forced to order a stocktake of smart motorways earlier this year following the hard-hitting Panorama review, and in March introduced an 18-point action plan to improve their safety by adding more places to stop in an emergency and a faster roll-out of radars to detect broken-down cars. 

Transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was forced to order a stocktake of smart motorways earlier this year over concerns about safety and the high death toll since they were introduced

Transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was forced to order a stocktake of smart motorways earlier this year over concerns about safety and the high death toll since they were introduced

Highways England chief executive, Jim O'Sullivan, will step down from his role in 2021, he has confirmed

Highways England chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, will step down from his role in 2021, he has confirmed

Smart motorway upgrades have since been proposed for the M6, M62, M56, the M40 and M42 interchange, the A1(M), the M3 and part of the M25. 

The company’s chief executive Jim O’Sullivan announced in August that he will step down early next year.

The Department for Transport declined to comment on the rebrand.

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