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Vectos View - The Highways Agency to lose its powers of direction

Vectos has been reviewing the potential impact of imminent changes to the strategic highway authority and the thresholds required to consult with them. 

These could have major implications in how applications affecting strategic roads are assessed by the Local Planning Authority and Highways England (the successor to the Highways Agency).

Highways England

On the 1st April 2015, the Highways Agency (HA) will transform into Highways England (HE); a government owned company to deliver the government’s long term plan for England’s strategic roads.  This change is intended to result in:“better long-term planning, more efficient delivery, greater transparency, clearer accountability and ultimately a better service”.

The DfT has produced the following document “Highways England: Licence – Secretary of State for Transport statutory directions and guidance to the strategic highways company (April 2015)” https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/411301/strategic-highways-licence.pdf

This document sets out what HE is expected to achieve and how they are expected to behave in discharging their duties.

According to the Secretary of State for Transport (SoS), HE is expected “to go the extra mile in the way it engages with road users and collaborates with other organisations to develop shared solutions”.

The above document sets out a list of responsibilities and duties that HE must carry out relating to the management of the network, providing information to road users developing route strategies and exploring new technologies.

Importantly this document reinforces the message that the HE is accountable for making sure the network is managed responsibly and for the aim of “supporting economic purpose”. 

Planning Duties

Where consulted on planning applications, the HE can either:

  1. 1.   Provide information – intended to provide general context to the decision of the LPA; or
  3. 2.  Provide a formal recommendation; where the LPA disagrees with the recommendation, the HE will put its recommendation to the SoS for their decision.

This approach is a distinct softening of the current powers of the HA to issue holding directions and has the potential to avoid some of the delays frequently encountered when the HA (and their consultants) get involved.

Given that the HE will no longer have the power to place holding directions, which were the cause of delays in the planning process, it is hoped that they will respond more quickly to make a judgment and to request any additional information (if required).

Whilst there remains the potential for a significant number of decisions to be referred to the SoS, it is hoped that their intervention will only occur on rare occasions but of course, this remains to be seen.  However, there will inevitably be some initial confusion regarding roles and responsibilities, followed by a settling down period, but these changes should assist in reducing some of the roadblocks for developments in the planning process.

Consultation Approach

Separately, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has recently undertaken a consultation exercise on the planning process and the Government’s response is contained in the document entitled: “Planning application process improvements – Government response to consultation” dated January 2015.


The original consultation sought views on measures to improve the planning application process and the included a set of proposals to improve the mechanics of the application process with a focus on ensuring effective 3rd party consultation.

Within the Government response is a review of the requirements for consultation with the Highways Agency. 

Currently the HA must be consulted when:

“Development likely to result in a material increase in the volume or a material change in the character of traffic entering or leaving a trunk road”

However, the consultation response concludes that the Government will change the requirements to:

“development, other than minor development, likely to result in an adverse impact on the safety of, or queuing on a trunk road”.

Again, this appears to be a softening of the current approach and the intention is clearly to ensure that minor developments are not held up by the HE.  This appears to put a greater onus on the LPA to determine whether the development is likely to result in an adverse impact.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether there will be a significant change in approach, as some local planning authorities are likely to err on the side of caution and consult the HE when unsure of the level of impact (particularly given our experience of a rise in the number of Judicial Reviews sought in recent times).

Vectos will monitor how these changes evolve.  However, if you have any queries relating to the above or would like any advice on schemes that may be affected please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected] or 020 7580 7373.