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Back in the fast lane

Investment in the road network is back on the agenda, says the Highways Agency’s new chief executive Graham Dalton. He spoke to Antony Oliver after transport secretary Ruth Kelly had unveiled a £6bn road investment package.

There’s a new wave of political interest in and enthusiasm for roads sweeping across the UK, claims new Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton.

Roads, he says, are now once again seen as a serious solution to the UK’s congestion problems after a decade or so gradually slipping down the political agenda in favour of other modes like rail.

“Interest has reawakened and it is starting to get interesting,” he says. “From the big questions about how we balance people’s wish to move around against environment and how much we can we afford to build.”

Dalton is the first civil engineer to be appointed as the Agency’s chief executive. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means the future of roads will simply be hard engineering. On the contrary, he says, solutions in the future will be a bit cleverer than just putting down more asphalt and concrete.

Dalton’s first task is to rebuild the Agency’s reputation as an efficient and reliable client and effective public servant.

The £6bn announced in transport secretary Ruth Kelly’s Command Paper last week is not, he says, simply an exercise in recounting money but a reconfirmation of this year’s settlement. This, he says, indicates a positive commitment by the government to investing public money in curbing road congestion and increasing car journey time reliability. It is a commitment that he wants to honour with delivery.

“This is going to allow us to build a five or six year programme with a great deal of confidence,” he explains. “But it isn’t a new idea starting this week. It’s all about journey time reliability, and to be honest it doesn’t matter which mode [of transport you consider], the secretary of state is looking at whole journey planning.”

Certainly the Agency has, as Dalton puts it, had a “tough time” delivering major projects. It has been somewhat beaten up over the past five years as its status as a leading edge procurer was left in tatters by cost over-runs and underperformance. This was highlighted last year in the Nichols report on the Agency’s procurement record.

Turning this around will mean continuing to implement the Nichols report recommendations.

There is clearly some way to go. The Agency’s latest annual report published this week demonstrates that while its overall performance in spending its £6.5bn annual budget is good, it is still missing crucial congestion busting targets and struggling to deliver to budget.

Yet he insists that, despite its recent problems, the Agency isn’t broken and with between £800M and £900M spent on maintenance each year, it still has a very solid baseline of work.

“There has been a whole change in philosophy around what the Agency is. We have gone through the big change,” he says, highlighting the fact that the focus is now placed on network operation. “Now it is about making [the Agency] more efficient and making it better. It is not a reining back exercise.”

He points to the very positive results and high levels of public satisfaction achieved by its Traffic Officer initiative on the motorway network – an initiative which he says could well soon move on to other major roads.

And then there is Active Traffic Management (ATM) – hard shoulder running – rolled out on the M42. Following Kelly’s funding announcement last week, this is set to be extended to many other stretches of motorway.

Of his new role Dalton says: “This is an opportunity to pick up what is inherently a sound performing group, get it revitalised, get a clear agenda for it going and building more stuff with a decent workload”.
Dalton comes fresh from three years at the Department for Transport (DfT) where he led the rail project division during a period of massive public investment growth.

But he insists that he is far from the “dull old civil servant sent in to pull the Agency back on course”. Instead he explains that his knowledge and experience of the workings of Government makes him well placed to keep the Agency moving forward.

“There has been a weakness in the relationship between the Agency and the DfT, partly because a few years back it was pretty much a steady state business,” he says, pointing out that five years ago rail was seen as the problem and was the focus of the department’s efforts as a result.

“Now we are getting a rebalance – there is recognition that it’s actually [road] congestion that we have to sort out.”

“It’s about picking up how the world’s changing and what has to be done [to tackle congestion],” he says. “A roads programme used to be fairly nice and simple. We are now getting into a world where we are balancing between modes and where all modes are congested. We are trying to put in rather more intelligent solutions.”

Solutions such as ATM, congestion charging and tolled lanes are, he says, far from “cheapskate alternatives” to widening and building new capacity. On the contrary this is highways catching up.

“I have spent 20 to 25 years on major infrastructure schemes in a number of different sectors and all have a very high technology input. Why should roads be any different?” he asks.

Crucially, a more robust view is now being taken on risk and cost forecasting, using the Agency’s new post-Nichols Projects Control Framework project assessment process.

“It’s a very simple philosophy: have some defined steps as you go from bright idea into use,” he says. “The philosophy is exactly the same as the Network Rail Grip system – bringing some discipline into project management – you commit to budgets when you know what it is that you are going to do.”

Dalton accepts that cost estimating methods for highway projects have not been right and that the Agency has been poor at forecasting. But he points out that this is not necessarily unique to roads or to transport projects.

He says that while roughly half the cost hikes are down to inflation, the rest come from scope change and development – “an inevitable consequence” of having to price up schemes very early in development.

Dalton is confident that he can help the Agency raise its game as a client and reduce congestion. “Success for me is that ministers are happy, the supply chain is happy and the users are happy – and that they all think that we are doing a good job,” he says. “If I didn’t think it was achievable I would not be here.”

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