Richard Burden PA

Labour transport minister Richard Burden (pictured) has accused the government of washing its hands of the Strategic Road Network (SRN), following the creation of Highways England in April.

Highways England, the successor to the Highways Agency, has responsibility for the motorways and major roads in England and Wales. Its rebranding was tied into a change of ownership, which saw it leave the public sector and become a private company owned by the government (along the lines of Network Rail) instead.

The transformation was labelled as ill-advised and unneccessary by the Transport Committee last year, but the government  said it was the only option to engender longer-term planning and funding of the SRN.

Burden’s intervention came after McLoughlin fielded a question in parliament earlier this month from Gareth Johnson MP to do with Dartford residents’ frustrations with the new Dart Charge payment system at the Dartford Crossing.

McLoughlin conceded that the issues they faced were “unacceptable” and said he would “take them up with the company”, referring to the recently formed Highways England.

Speaking to MT, Burden said that while it was a “good thing” McLoughlin had showed a willingness to address the problem, “the slightly concerning thing was that he thought it was the company’s responsibility rather than his”.

“It was always the worry that changing the Highways Agency to Highways England was going to lead to an attitude of mind where the government became lobbyist for things to do with them, rather than the body that’s responsible for making sure things actually happen,” he said.

Burden said that throughout the restructuring process, Labour had called for assurances that the Highways Agency conversion would not lead to a situation where the government could separate itself from Highways England’s responsibilities.

He said: “Every time we raised it we got absolute assurances. John Hayes was very clear that he wasn’t going to let that happen. But John Hayes isn’t there any more and I am worried by the terminology that Patrick McLoughlin used in his answer.”

Burden is considering writing a letter to McLoughlin requesting confirmation that his concerns are unfounded, and added that it could have just been a “slip of the tongue”.

But “they’ve got to show by their actions that they are retaining responsibility for sorting this out, and not just assume the role of lobbyist”.

Last week, Highways England appointed Jim O'Sullivan as its new chief executive.