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Archie's angle

Profile - Highways Agency chief executive Archie Robertson is upbeat about the changes facing his organisation. Mark Hansford reports.

'There is a lot to do delivering projects in this environment. This is tough stuff.

But it has been recognised by the National Audit Office and by [consultant] Mike Nichols that this is tough stuff and we're up for it, ' says Highways Agency chief executive Archie Robertson.

He is reecting on a couple of months which saw the departure of major projects director Keith Miller and his procurement director Steve Rowsell and publication of two major investigations into his organisation's ability to deliver major road schemes.

Nichols Group chairman Mike Nichols and the National Audit Office (NAO) had some fairly scathing comments about the Agency's scope setting and early estimating of project costs - comments which precipitated Miller's departure (NCE 22 February).

Nicols and the NAO produced reports which finally acknowledged what the industry has been telling the government for years - costs are going up because construction inflation is rampant.

Indeed, Nichols and the NAO drew on research carried out for the Agency by EC Harris in August 2006. It analysed the 13 schemes with the largest cost overruns and found construction ination to be responsible for 57% of them.

Poor estimates and scope changes contributed another 15% each.

But with a revised approach to measuring inflation, and ever improving estimates, the Agency is now turning out schemes on budget.

'There are no cost overruns, ' says Robertson. 'When we get to ministerial approval stage we out-turn very close to budget.

We are delivering schemes to scope and budget. The issue is in estimating.' Robertson is philosophical about the Nichols report's conclusions and is keen to emphasise its positive aspects.

This is especially true with regard to the recommendation that the Department for Transport has a more hands on, more strategic role in developing roads projects, with the Agency more clearly responsible for delivery.

'You have got to take a balanced look at Nichols. Yes, it is clarifying responsibilities and accountability. But it also says the Agency should be given the budget it needs to deliver the roads programme.

'It's important to have as much reliability in the capital programme as we can and to have a forward budget remaining steady.

'The Department [for Transport] has accepted we will have a £1bn a year major projects budget. So in practical terms my expectation would be for the spending review and the budget and plan that comes from that to reect that.

'We're all very conscious of the need to get schemes delivered. Forty four out of 103 schemes on the Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI) are done and seven more will be delivered this year. So we are going to be bursting through the halfway point this year and will keep up the momentum.' One fear is that government will not keep up that momentum, instead preferring the stickingplaster approach to tackling congestion using Active Traffic Management (ATM). This is where the hard shoulder is turned into a running lane at peak times, as is currently being trialled on the M42 around Birmingham. Robertson is keen to stress that ATM has only limited potential.

'I'm personally very enthusiastic about the potential of ATM and really want to know how it translates to other sections of the network. Will it work on a large inter-urban part of the M1?

'But I really don't think we should get into thinking that some technology on a piece of road is going to replace the need for extra capacity.

'ATM does use existing capacity well at congested times, but it doesn't replace the need for additional construction.

Eighty per cent of Britain's freight moves by road, and two thirds of that is on the strategic road network. We are critically dependent on it.' Quick wins like ATM, and othercongestion-busting initiatives like ramp metering and high occupancy vehicle lanes are going to become increasingly important for the Agency from here on, however, with introduction from April of a reliability target. The Agency is now charged with reducing delays on the slowest 10% of journeys - as of now the average delay is slightly up.

'The target is good, because I believe in having clear goals, ' says Robertson.

His big priority this year, however, remains implementing the Nichols recommendations.

'Of his key actions, number one was to strengthen our leadership with commercial management, ' says Robertson, referring to his decision to preempt the Nicols report by axing Miller. Miller was considered lacking in the commercial skills needed to take the Agency forward. 'We have Jerry England on board as an interim measure and the major projects director post has been advertised, ' adds Robertson.

'Then, supporting the commercial thrust, we will be appointing a commercial director and we have also appointed divisional director Derek Drysdale as change director to prioritise the other Nichols recommendations to make early progress, ' he says.

Last week's Highways Agency business plan contained one of the more signicant of these, with the Targeted Programme of Improvements split into four project stages.

Contractors have expressed fears that this recategorising of schemes could lead to a workload hiatus and Robertson is unable to offer too much reassurance on this.

'It is too early to say. But major taxpayer investments need good controls, and now our schemes are going to be given a bit more of an airing.'

What Robertson is sure of is that the Agency will stick to its guns on the use of Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) when developing and procuring major projects.

Nichols grudgingly accepts the Agency's pioneering procurement model, and Robertson is sticking with it.

'I remain committed to the ECI form of procurement, ' he says. It helps us deliver earlier, gives us a better view on options and solutions and encourages innovation. That's not to say I think it's perfect. Only now are we being able to review schemes done using it. There are still things we can do to develop what is an important tool but which is actually still in its early stages of development.' Due to the long gestation period of civil engineering projects and the fact that ECI means that contractors are appointed early, only ve schemes using the method have been completed.

Niggles aside, Robertson is positive about the future.

'We are going to get more commercially astute, but we have been delivering on time, on budget and on scope, ' he reiterates. We have got direction, we have got the support of the supply chain, and we have got the support of government, ' he says.

'And when you look at what we've been achieving then somebody must be noticing something. We've rolled out traffic officers six months ahead of schedule; Active Traffic Management on the M42 is now six months in and looking great; we're putting in ramp metering on busy junctions; extending our trials of putting journey and delay times on motorway message signs; and introducing a new digital radio service to provide real-time traffic information.

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