Exclusive: National Highways name sparks anger in Wales, which looks after its own roads
Welsh politicians object to the name National Highways because the agency will not have a remit in Wales. Photograph: Huw Fairclough/Getty
The government is planning to spend an estimated £7m to rebrand Highways England as National Highways, just five years after its last multimillion-pound rebranding.
The change of name, which is understood to have been forced on the agency’s leadership by the Department for Transport, has bemused observers. Labour said the move was perplexing, while the decision to rebrand a purely English agency as “national” has provoked anger in Wales, with Plaid Cymru calling the new name “self-aggrandising and offensive”.
Government sources suggested a final decision had not been taken but that the name change would reflect its strategic importance. The arm’s-length government agency, which runs the strategic road network of motorways and major A-roads, is understood to have only recently completed the updating of signage from its last name change in April 2015.
Extensive instructions on how to ensure the Highways England branding was painted across every brochure, roadworks sign, public document and works vehicle were issued to contractors just last year.
Matt Rodda, Labour’s shadow roads minister, said: “At a time of national crisis, going through a national rebranding five years after the last one will be perplexing and seem a potential waste of taxpayer money to most people. The government need to justify why they are doing this and how they came to the decision on the new name.”
A Welsh government source said the move would “unnecessarily confuse people as to where responsibility for roads lies – in Wales, with the Welsh government”. The planned rebranding comes weeks after the government reignited a row over the M4 motorway in Wales. The Welsh government scrapped a planned relief road around Newport in 2019 on environmental grounds, but Boris Johnson this month suggested that he would find a way to restart the scheme.
Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said: “Given this Westminster government’s obsession with rowing back our devolution settlement, this rebrand is wrong, self-aggrandising and offensive.
“Regardless of the UK government’s moves to undermine Welsh powers through the UK internal market bill, the fact remains that powers over the operation and maintenance of highways are fully devolved.
“It is beyond baffling that the UK government has to be reminded of this fact, over 20 years since the establishment of devolution.”
The chief executive of Highways England, Jim Sullivan, resigned in August. A successor is expected in early 2021 to implement the next phase of the government’s £27bn roadbuilding programme. The DfT declined to comment.