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Consultant variations

Delivery of the first road contracts to be procured through the Private Finance Initiative has given consultants a new role and a new outlook on highway construction, says Jon Masters.

Traditional responsibilities for road construction have been turned around by the Private Finance Initiative. Under design, build, finance and operate contracts, the role of the Engineer commonly associated with traditional road contracts has disappeared. But, consultants can be involved in DBFO contracts in several ways, either as part of the concession company, the designer within a joint venture contractor or in the key role of client's agent or representative - depending on local preference.

Scott Wilson project director Ronnie Hunter describes the transition from traditional road contract procurement using the ICE Fifth Edition, to DBFO contracts as 'a complete restructuring of roles'.

Scott Wilson is the Secretary of State's agent for construction of the 28km of A74/M6 upgrade in Scotland and concurrent maintenance of 100km of the same route. Valued at around 160M for the construction work alone, the A74/M6 job is the largest PFI contract initiated by the Scottish Office, and as one of the first of its kind in Scotland, the project is forming a benchmark for similar schemes in the future.

'We represent the Secretary of State and look after his interests. That is the bottom line,' says Hunter. 'We have four main roles: monitoring of the design and construction of the upgrade works; monitoring the routine operation and maintenance; responding to variations and queries; and overseeing the traffic measurement.

'Some of this, such as monitoring the design and construction and responding to queries is much the same as we would have done as the Engineer on a traditional contract. However, most of it is was new to us from the start and we have learnt a lot of new skills.

'The upgrade works between Paddy's Rickle Bridge and Cleuchbrae on the A74 - to be renamed M6 on completion - is being carried out by a joint venture of Amey, Sir Robert McAlpine, Taylor Woodrow and Barr for Autolink Concessionaires (NCE 15 October).

Scott Wilson's team of 17 permanent staff based on site is small compared with the 100 plus that Hunter says would be needed if his firm was carrying out the traditional Engineer role on such a large project.

'The Scottish Office does not want to be involved in the supervision of the works, it wants the concession company to be doing this and we are making sure this happens by validating the quality system rather than the finished product,' says Hunter.

'All of our staff on site are trained auditors, and that is the essence of our task. We have a dedicated quality manager and four people monitoring the documentation and traffic measurement. We also have two environmental monitors on site keeping an eye on watercourse protection and the many wildlife and vegetation relocation schemes in place.

'If something does go wrong, our intention is not to dive straight into confrontation. We work to get a resolution satisfactory for the Scottish Office and Autolink and we want to know if the quality system picked up the problem adequately.'

Only the Scottish Office can authorise a change to the design and it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State's Agent to advise the client and control the system established to respond to variation proposals.

'We have deliberately tried to play an important role in the development of the JV's variations,' says Hunter. 'It takes a lot of time and money to generate a change once an idea has been put forward and it is in everyone's interest for us to advise the JV on whether proceeding with a variation is likely to prove fruitful.'

Monthly payments made to Autolink during the construction period are related to shadow toll - which has resulted in most lane closures occurring at night - and the lack of a permit to use for any section of the work also affects the toll payment.

'We don't measure concrete any more, we measure traffic, because it is very important for both Autolink and the Scottish Office that a fair and reliable system is in place,' says Hunter.

PFI road contract procurement for the Highways Agency in England and Wales has developed in parallel with that for the Scottish Office, and consequently, roles and responsibilities follow much the same pattern south of the border.

The concession to upgrade and maintain the A1(M) between Alconbury and Peterborough in Cambridgeshire is held by the Amec, Alfred McAlpine, Dragados and Brown & Root consortium Road Management Services WS Atkins is the 'Department's Representative' for the maintenance of the existing and new road, and until the 180M upgrade was completed in October, it also held the title of Department's Agent for the construction of the new works.

WS Atkins department's agent Ray Powell is in an ideal position to compare DBFO road projects with schemes procured through traditional methods. Powell has many years of experience as a resident engineer for Cambridgeshire County Council which externalised its Engineering Services division to WS Atkins at around the same time as the PFI framework for road contracts was being developed in 1995.

'This project has been a real eye-opener,' says Powell. 'With a traditional ICE Fifth Edition contract, the contractor had no financial incentive to deal with a problem immediately after spotting it. But now the contractor manages any problems itself with great professionalism.

'The key to carrying out a DBFO contract successfully is getting the paperwork in place right from the start,' adds Powell. 'Attitudes towards QA have got a lot better, even over the last two and a half years. People on this job and the industry as a whole have realised that having the right attitude to QA is important because it leads to the right attitude on site.'

John Masters is senior reporter for Barrett, Byrd Associates

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