Where is John Major’s Cones Hotline when we need it? – David Behrens

How we laughed in 1992 when John Major set up his ludicrous Cones Hotline to tackle motorway congestion. It was supposed to be part of a “citizens’ charter” for better public services but was really just an answering machine into which we could rant about yet another bit of the M62 being dug up.

Smart motorways are said to be statistically safer
Smart motorways are said to be statistically safer

It might surprise you to know it’s still going. When the jokes about cones became too many, it changed its name to the Highways Agency Information Line and today it is Highways England’s “customer contact centre”.

Whatever you call it, it’s still a turkey. There are more roadworks than ever and the ratio of cones to people doing any actual digging must be something like 50,000 to one.

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Yet Highways England has become increasingly high handed about them. It’s not the cones that are the problem, they contend, it’s those pesky motorists who insist on driving past them. This might be funny if the consequences were not so serious.

Smart motorways are said to be statistically safer

Many roadworks of late have been in the name of creating so-called smart motorways, which is another way of saying “no hard shoulder”. The idea is to give traffic an extra lane during rush hours, without incurring the expense of actually widening the road. That’s fine until your car breaks down and you discover there is now nowhere to stop. Technology has a workaround for this, in the form of radars that can detect when a vehicle is stationary.

Unfortunately, Highways England remains stuck in the age of the telephone answering machine and has failed to install them on its smartest roads – despite assuring the Government otherwise five years ago.

The outcome was 15 deaths last year.

This February, a coroner asked the Crown Prosecution Service to consider charging the organisation with corporate manslaughter following the death of a woman whose broken-down car on the M1 near Sheffield had not been noticed.

Two months later the Government ruled that no more of these motorways would be allowed to open without proper safeguards. But this week, when the issue was brought before the Commons Transport Select Committee, Highways England deflected responsibility once more.

Smart motorways were statistically safer than conventional ones, it insisted; its only culpability had been in failing to convince the public that this was so – presumably by relying on ambiguous and amateurish campaigns such as its current one, in which drivers are exhorted by people in fly costumes to “go left”.

It’s exactly the sort of patronising drivel that prevents anyone from taking Highways England seriously. Its credibility has been compromised by decades of spin about how good the roads are when the evidence to the contrary is stretched out before us in one contraflow after another.

It should have learned this long ago. Back in the early 2000s, when I was its website editor, it was already pursuing a campaign to open up hard shoulders to traffic, even though there was no legislation for it.

This and other obstinacies prompted a Transport Select Committee to label it elitist, lumbering and risk-averse, with no grip on costs. The Highways Agency, as it was then called, was “managing a property portfolio it should not possess from expensive offices it should not be using” and had only a limited idea of what some staff were doing, said the committee.

From the inside, these shortcomings were already obvious. Probably 
three-quarters of the staff did no work themselves but merely managed the contractors to whom they had outsourced it.

Yet the complacency was breathtaking. The organisation could even justify a reported £1m national recruitment campaign during my time that did not result in a single new appointment but instead pushed weary time-servers another rung up the promotion ladder, in order to propagate their stale ideas from a higher office. Their response to MPs on smart motorways this week proved they are still doing just that.

It’s precisely the kind of contempt for the public that John Major’s citizens’ charter was supposed to address. But for its ham-fisted implementation, it might have succeeded. As it is, our road network is no better than when he left office – and if you want proof, call 0300 123 5000 and rant at the Cones Hotline, or whatever they’re calling it this week.

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