English councils will be given access to a multibillion-pound fund for local road improvements under plans unveiled by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling.
It was initially envisaged that the cash, held in the national roads fund, would be spent on the motorways and major A-roads managed by Highways England. But Grayling announced a change of tack, saying that some of it should be diverted to be spent on roads run by local authorities.
He placed a particular focus on a “bypass fund”, while some of the money will also be used to help councils enhance or replace the most important A-roads under their management, the Department for Transport said.
Under the strategy, which could be implemented in 2020, road improvement programmes are to be judged on how they contribute to creating a more geographically balanced economy, increase productivity or growth and tackle congestion.
The DfT pledged to support every part of the country and, in some cases, give priority to smaller schemes that are “proven solutions” so passengers and drivers get the benefits quicker. A major road network is to be created under the plan and a consultation on its definition will be opened later this year.
Vehicle excise duty reached £5.8bn in 2016-17 and that is figure is reportedly expected to rise to nearly £7bn by 2020-21.
“Getting transport spending right is crucial for the country’s future,” Grayling said, announcing the proposals. “The transport investment strategy sets out a blueprint for how we can harness the power of transport investment to drive balanced economic growth, unlock new housing projects and support the government’s modern industrial strategy.
“This government is taking the big transport decisions for Britain’s future, like HS2 and Heathrow, while delivering the biggest investment in roads and rail for a generation. At the heart of our approach is a plan to make transport work for the people who use it and for the wider economy.”
Separately, Grayling told the Times: “If you look at where there are problems on the A-road network, it is the areas where a fairly significant regional route passes through a small town. The lorries congeal in the centre, there’s congestion and … people for years have been saying: ‘I want a bypass,’ so we are making money available for that.
“These routes don’t just unlock economic potential. There are quite a lot of places where there is the potential for housing developments on the edge of towns where a bypass going around the town can actually unlock housing as well.”
The Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, Martin Tett, said that councils had been calling for a better balance of investment between local and national infrastructure. “It’s great to see the government adopt this approach, which recognises our roads form one big network. The devil will be in the detail but this is a refreshing approach from the government.”
The plan was welcomed by motoring groups. The AA’s president, Edmund King, said many communities were “crying out” for a bypass to be built. “Local authority A-roads have become the poor relation or country cousins in comparison to the amounts spent on motorways and the strategic road network.
“It is imperative that the status and spending on the most important of these roads is elevated,” he said.
And Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, said the plan recognised that many of the most important roads connecting towns and cities were “the responsibility of cash-strapped local councils”.
He said: “Drivers have long felt that too many of the billions they pay in motoring taxes each year get siphoned away to other deserving causes. Today’s announcement is a big step on the way to winning back their trust.”