Leading the effort to change the way we build and run our roads system

by | Oct 21, 2016 | News

I have spent the last few years thinking about how we build and run our road system. As a Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary until the summer, I helped shape the creation of Highways England and the Road Investment Strategy. And as the author of a new biography of the great engineer Thomas Telford, published next January, I studied the building of the turnpike network, much of which survives under tarmac today as the backbone of the A and B road system.

The lessons from both are clear. Roads power our economy. They reach every part of the country. They are a long-term investment. They are a source of revenue, as much as a cost. They could always be better funded, better run and better maintained.

But in recent years public policy thinking has been constrained. Even as revenue from car use has gone up, spending has flat-lined, and interest in transport planning has often gone elsewhere. This is a mistake and I am pleased to be leading an effort to change it.

This month saw the launch of the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize, with a prestigious panel of judges including Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor, and Sir John Kingman, chairman-elect of Legal and General and before that a Permanent Secretary at the Treasury. We are asking for ambitious and practical proposals for better ways to run better roads. You can see more information here: https://policyexchange.org.uk/wolfsonprize/

Traffic is at record levels, in the UK and elsewhere. We need to find better ways to invest in roads and maintain them. Past attempts to reform the system have often been set back on technological or political grounds but now the way vehicles are powered, driven and owned is being revolutionised. A new kind of road use will take a new kind of road and a new kind of funding.

We are calling for entries from around the world, from individuals, groups and organisations of all sorts, including academics, tech firms, auto firms and financial institutions such as insurers. We want them to address more than theory: they should put forward practical ideas that will actually work and crucially could win the backing of road users and political leaders.

Anyone can enter and we will shortlist the best ideas, awarding runners up £10,000 as well as £250,000 to the winner. We’re asking for first round entries by 2 March 2017 and we will award the prize in July 2017. I hope everyone associated with Highways UK is as intrigued by this competition as I am and that many of you decide to take part.


Julian Glover is Director of the 2017 Wolfson Prize. His biography of Thomas Telford, Man of Iron, is published by Bloomsbury in January 2017. 

  • Highways UK is delighted to announce that two members of judging panel will take part in the closing keynote session at 15.20 on 17 November. Isabel Dedring, global transport leader, Arup and Bridget Rosewell, senior advisory, Volterra Partners will be discussing aspects of the Wolfson Prize’s framing question, namely: How do we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment?


Julian Glover

Julian Glover – Director, 2017 Wolfson Prize