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Debate | A new future for highways

The Government’s £15bn roads programme sets out the first ever five-year programme to modernise, maintain and operate England’s 6,900km of strategic roads. 

Delivering this ambitious programme requires the highways sector to put at its core improved customer service, better planning and stronger relationships across the supply chain.

At a recent New Civil Engineer/Tarmac round table, key figures from the industry, came together to discuss the best way to achieve this more enlightened and collaborative approach. Here are the key points from the discussion.

tarmac roads debate

tarmac roads debate

Greater visibility is a blessing and curse

Costain programme director Tony Scutt celebrated the progress made by the road industry, but warned that it would now face a new range of problems. 

“We’ve got a lot more visibility than we have ever had before, and because of regulatory legal spend we’ve got far more confidence than we’ve ever had before. What we have to realise is that because we have the longer visibility, the schemes that are further ahead in the future are less developed,” he said. 

“We as an industry have to acknowledge that. There will be changes as these schemes mature and the supply chain needs to accept that. We have to be patient and understand that schemes will change and not complain about it, otherwise Highways England will shut up shop and it won’t give us that information.”  

Meanwhile Connect Plus chief executive officer Tim Jones said Highways England would also have to manage upwards. “I think the biggest issue is how Highways England prepare themselves to have a dialogue with government not just about spending the £15bn, but knowing exactly where it’s going and the benefits it will deliver,” he said. 

Finding the mid-level skill sets is tricky

Skanska executive vice president Greg Craig said he was confident that the industry would be able to respond to the challenge laid down by Highways England but he worried about a shortage of mid-level recruits. 

“Although there’s a lot of effort going on at the moment in the front end in terms of apprentices and graduates, which is great, and we’re a big supporter of that, the big challenge is right in the middle – it’s the sheer volume of experienced people. That’s the really challenging bit because you can’t just manufacture them in one year, two years or even three years.”    

Highways England pavements team leader Ramesh Sinhal was concerned about  the supply chain’s readiness. “Are people geared up to provide the required services? There are always fluctuations in these programmes, but knowing the five-year period, are we ready to deliver as a team?” he asked.

What works for local roads is trickier on the strategic highways network

Colas executive director David Craik thought it was easier to make the case for highways PFI contracts in urban areas because the road improvements would directly benefit local users and advocates could use local meetings and local media to make their case. 

“[However] on the strategic road network, and on the principal local authority road network, the problem is that the people you are delivering to are driving along, and getting the message to them is difficult,” he said. “The local community gets little benefit and the people you want to get the message to are travelling past at 50 miles per hour.” 

Matrix signs ought to be less apologetic

Tarmac senior vice president Martin Riley said the industry needed to do more to communicate the positive benefits of road infrastructure improvements and that new matrix signs could help to communicate with the transient customers using the strategic road network and he argued that they should be used more positively. 

“It should be so much easier with the matrix signs that are now available to actually create a positive message,” he said. “Rather than only focusing on something that might be perceived as negative – such as ‘repairing worn out road surface’, why not say ‘installing smoother, quieter road – improving the journey for you and your family’?”

Short term disruption, long-term gain

Mathew Lugg, Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme advocate, for the Department for Transport said he thought that, from a local authority perspective, client demands should sometimes come second to those of the supply chain.  

“All too often priorities are based on the client’s consideration rather than sitting down with the supply chain and asking how they can be helped to maximise their resources to deliver an outcome.”  

Tarmac managing director, contracting, Paul Fleetham said that, speaking as a supplier, extended access to a road would be appreciated. “We currently do all our work on the motorway between eleven at night and three in the morning, so our capacity is shoe horned into delivering a short shift,” he said. “If we could double the duration of our working window, then our trucks could make two visits to site, effectively halving our unit transport charges.

ramesh sintal

ramesh sintal

Ramesh Sintal: Supply chain readiness concern

Research into disruptions could help Transport Focus road user policy advisor Phil Carey suggested that the research body could conduct a study to determine whether road users preferred short sharp shocks, or punctuated closures over extended periods. 

“Transport Focus is planning research into the user experience of delay and disruption on the Strategic Road Network, including from planned roadworks,” he said. “There could be real value in using that to explore attitudes to a few days of total closure of a road, as opposed to a longer period of overnight-only work.”

Early engagement can appease the public

“We’ve talked a lot about public perception and I think we all realise what the public wants,” said Tarmac head of business development Geoff Fawkes. “Twenty years ago, if you said you were going to extend a quarry, then [the public] had no idea of what you were going to do. Now, with early engagement you can explain what you are going to do, what the public will see and when they see the reality, they realise the impact is nowhere near what they feared.”

Clients need support

Tarmac commercial director, contracting Andrew Rowley said that the supply chain should be aware that clients often lacked technical expertise and need support to help them make transport planning decisions.

He described how, on a successful PFI scheme in Blackpool, Tarmac worked with the local authority to provide advice on interventions. “We helped them in terms of deterioration modelling and planning their interventions and the different treatments they might apply, which then allowed them to plan the whole life of that asset in a more joined up way. That’s what drove the improvements.”

So far so good, says regulator

When asked to rate the performance of Highways England so far, Office of Rail and Road (ORR) highways director Peter Antolik said he was largely happy with the body that replaced the Highways Agency. “This year, [2015] the capital programme seems to be very much on track. We can see some potential warning signs coming down the road but then it’s a five-year programme and you’d expect that,” he said.


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