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Debate | Highways innovation in the slow lane

Martin Lugg

Construction 2025 draws ever closer, and with it, targets for the UK to lead the world in research and innovation.

Highways need to be transformed by digital design and smartly constructed, but with increasing pressure on budgets, can these ambitious targets be met? These questions were discussed at a recent New Civil Engineer/Tensar round table.

“The feedback we are getting is that this is a no brainer,” said Tensar technology manager for pavements Craig Andrews. “We’ve seen a very piecemeal adoption of the innovation and technologies, and we need to accelerate this to ensure we meet the government’s vision of 2025.”



Norfolk County Council lab manager, Bob Noakes agreed. “Innovation is the key. It’s what civil engineers do, and we should be looking at things differently and not what we have always done.”

Bringing innovation into practice

“It’s very hard to get innovation into practice” added the University of  Derby senior lecturer in asphalt engineering Tony Stock, speaking from experience. “It’s a long, long, long process.”

Tensar’s UK, Ireland and Sub-Sahara business director Peter Wills agreed. “We need to break out of the traditional civil engineering conservative attitude to innovation and break down the barriers,” he said.

When asked what enables good ideas to find their way through the myriad of approvals, Noakes said the expert client role was missing and that was making the innovation difficult. 

“The role was ubiquitous but seems to have disappeared. With consultants, if it’s not in the brief then they are not going to deliver it. With clients it’s about owning the network and wanting to save money. The expert client is the custodian of innovation.”

Stock thought that privately funded projects were more positive about innovation, especially those outside the UK.

“In the right environment you can [work innovatively], but it is extremely hard in the UK,” he said. “There are so many barriers.”

Skanska pavement consultant Lucia de Ferrariis agreed. “It’s about finding the expertise and having an intimate understanding of the work.”

Mouchel Consulting director of public services Matthew Lugg, who is also a Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) advocate, thought that as a country we weren’t particularly good at sharing good practice. “There are plenty of fantastic nuggets of good practice, but these aren’t shared well enough. 

Martin Lugg

Matthew Lugg

Lugg: “Too much duplication”

“The HMEP is looking drive 30% savings in local highway authority maintenance, and this is achievable. But it will demand a change in mindset and how we do things. This won’t happen without innovators and innovations.” 

Stimulating innovation

“Innovation is really difficult to drive through, and we don’t always do ourselves justice” continued Lugg. “Some of the materials we’ve used in the past have not been good, and not added much credibility to the industry. We need to give people confidence that if we are going to do something different it is worth taking the risk  and it will work. We need to be sharing evidence-based case studies. Highways authorities should not be working in isolation.”

There were opportunities in the private sector to take [innovation] risk on behalf of the public sector added Aecom associate director of infrastructure Alastair Mckenzie. “There is a different risk evaluation between having the client take that risk, and where the client transfers that risk to another body.”

Vinci highways sector director Peter Whitman argued that it is difficult for all 150 local authorities to be experts. “It’s not really efficient. Some are very innovative and have an excellent understanding of where the risk should lie. Seventy five are below average and 75 are above average. If you could just bring the bottom 75 in the top half, there would be a real improvement.”

Improving local authority performance

“All 150 local authority clients are doing the same job.  Ninety per cent of what they do is exactly the same” added Aecom local authorities director Adrian Coy. “They are all maintaining roads. Each feels they are unique, facing different problems and requiring different specifications.”

“It’s difficult for any local authority to admit they might be in the bottom 75. And very difficult to admit that resources have got so weak that they may no longer be satisfying the public. Examples such as the MHA and HMEP demonstrate that one way round this is to work together; but fundamentally, is the [local authority] structure still fit for purpose?”


Hampered by red tape

Norfolk County Council’s Noakes thought the fundamental problem with bringing innovation into the public sector market, was the restrictions in place within local authorities. “There is no system or process for delivering innovation. If you want innovation, you say to the people offering it ‘yes give it to us’ and the whole process is about managing the risk. You open the door, let the industry trial it, and then in the long run each one of these new things becomes the standard.” 

“The innovators need nurturing and the data needs collecting,” added Noakes. 

The University of Derby’s Stock wanted to know where the research investment was. “The civil engineering industry has one of the worst records for investing in research and development. But the money is there. The investment required is a very small amount in comparison with the value of contracts.” 

Over duplication

“We duplicate too much” added Lugg. “We need to capture research at a national level, and stop reinventing the wheel.”

“If an innovative company wants to make an impact on the UK highways market, is it from top down or the bottom up?” asked Wills. 

HMEP advocate Lugg thought that geographical clusters were working very well. “The way into the local authority market is not through 150 different entities,” he argued. “There is really good geographic clustering and that can be seen in the framework contracts. Local authorities are going to market with better entities to get a better deal, and I think that is where innovators need to influence.”

“The devolution agenda is going to be a massive thing, and I think [innovators] should look at the shape of where local government is going.”

Noakes disagreed. “The problem with innovation delivery will not be solved with devolution. There will just be fewer people to talk to,” he said. 

Individual perceptions

Aecom associate director Dermott Doyle argued that it will still be down to the individuals and how perceptive they are to innovation. “It’s the individuals who can be a real problem. If we can’t get [innovation] past them, and we have all the evidence, often six months later we are still no further forward.”

“The bigger problem is accessing a library of good practice,” added Doyle. “Highways England holds that resource. The information is all gathered and kept in a big repository, but why aren’t people using it? 

“The information is being lost and every time you do a job, we are starting from scratch again. It’s crazy, we keep going round in circles.”

Collaboration and contract models

Vinci’s Whitman thought that if innovation was savings in cost and time, then collaboration was the solution. “The bulk of money is spent in the delivery of any project. The way to manage the cost and time is with collaboration and that begins with the right contractual models embedded in developing that solution.”

peter whitman

peter whitman

Whitman: Collaboration is the solution

Stock believed that a “team” was needed to bring innovation into the industry. “A team which can tear up specifications and codes and which is all engineers,” he said.  “It’s essential that everyone is there from the supply chain, who can be open-minded, and put aside so-called established practice and just get on with the engineering.”

Noakes asked who was winning when it comes to innovation. “Who are we making the savings for, today, tomorrow, a few years down the line? There are different winners as time passes by.”

Tensar vice president and general manager Stephen Ewer was still concerned that innovation was knocking on a closed door. “Collaboration is the key obviously, but who do innovators collaborate with?” he asked. 

“We meet people across the world, where innovation is the standard. We put our money in, and see a return on our investment over a few years. It’s not as clear in the UK, so there isn’t the financial incentive to invest and this ultimately holds back innovation.”

Ultimately the structure of Highways England needs looking at, agreed Noakes.  “It’s bonkers. The Department for Transport has tasked Highways England with innovating to deliver savings, but with no process to the deliver it.”

Debate delegates

Craig Andrews: technology manager for pavements,  Tensar

Adrian Coy, local authorities director, Aecom

Lucia de Ferrariis: pavement consultant, Skanska UK

Dermott Doyle, associate director, Aecom

Stephen Ewer: vice president and general manager, Tensar

Mark Hansford: editor, New Civil Engineer

Matthew Lugg: director of public services for Mouchel Consulting and Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) advocate

Alastair Mckenzie: UK registered ground engineering adviser and associate director, civil infrastructure, Aecom

Bob Noakes: laboratory manager, Norfolk County Council

Andy Simms: materials team manager, Jean Lefebvre (UK)

Tony Stock: senior lecturer in asphalt and paving technology, University of Derby

Peter Whitman: highways sector director, Vinci Construction UK

Peter Wills: UK, Ireland and sub-Sahara business director, Tensar


 In association with

tensar logo red

tensar logo red

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