Pioneered by the Highways Agency, early contractor involvement (ECI) has been held up as the relationship to which all should aspire. Almost without exception contractors working under ECI contracts with the Highways Agency sing its praises.
There is just one problem. To date only one Highways Agency ECI scheme is on site - the A500 Stoke Pathfi nder project.
Elsewhere contractors fume that government dallying is holding back construction of schemes such as the A303 Stonehenge and A3 Hindhead tunnels.
Fortunately, not all clients are hamstrung by Whitehall. Sheffield City Council has embraced the idea of ECI, and Birse Civils is happily getting started on stage two of the city's inner relief road this month. This follows stage 1B, completed in 2000, also built by Birse Civils, working under a postaward partnering agreement.
'But following Egan we were looking at getting better value still from the contractor, so here we have got them in much earlier, ' explains Sheffield City Council head of highways design Robert Davison. Hence ECI.
Leading up to this month's start on site, Birse Civils has been working with the council's in-house design team in Sheffield City Council offices since April 2003. A project manager, planner, commercial manager and two experienced site agents have all been on site, as part of a lump sum deal using the NEC Professional Services contract.
The scheme has actually been on the cards since 1996 and very little has changed since then, explains Davison. A bid for funding was made in the council's Local Transport Plan 2000-05 submission and provisional funding approval was granted in December 2000. A preliminary design was already in place at the tender stage.
'We are fortunate in Sheffield to still have a well resourced and competent in-house design team and we were adamant we were going to use our own designs, ' says Sheffield's special projects manager Mike Latham.
So the job for Birse Civils was to work with the Sheffield City Council team on detailed scheme development, taking it through public inquiry, developing a working programme, producing an agreed target cost and assisting in the resolution of as many construction issues as possible in advance of the work starting on site.
With the new road cutting through a combination of residential, commercial and former heavy industrial properties, spanning over the River Don and cutting under a railway line, there have been plenty of issues to resolve.
Overshadowing all other complexities, when Birse Civils was first signed up the scheme was costing more than the budget allowed. Savings had to be found during project development or the scheme would be axed before a sod was turned.
Costs rose from an initial estimate approaching £30M, to £33M when design began in earnest in 1996, and from there to £58.5M.
'Back in 1996 we based our estimate on the finishes used on phase 1B, ' explains Davison.
But while Sheffield was designing the scheme the government got excited about urban design and raised the standard of finish needed for the road if it was to act as a catalyst for regeneration and attract businesses to the area. Granite kerbs do not come cheap.
Value engineering pared costs back to £56M, matching the funding available. Around £33M of this is actual construction costs.
'Sheffield has spent the money on our lump sum but that investment will deliver back 10 times the return. In any business that's good, ' says Birse Civils major projects director Ged O'Reilly. 'Without ECI you'd be looking to cut down the project scope.' The public inquiry was held in December 2003 and went without a hitch. 'We had just one objector for the whole project, ' says Latham. Draft orders were confirmed in March 2004.
Final DfT approval was granted in December.
Construction is now getting under way and will take just over two years. Birse's attention is therefore now on the next major challenge. Compulsory Purchase Orders were issued in May 2003 but many of the 43 properties due for demolition are not yet vacated. 'Unusually we haven't got all the land clear to build. People are beginning to move out, but quite a lot are still occupied, ' says O'Reilly.
Because Birse has been involved from the start it has been able to develop a programme to fit the land available. This is critical as the DfT has insisted that central government funding must be spent in the agreed timescale.
There can be no delays. 'We had to convince DfT that we would be able to stick to 112 weeks, ' says Davison. ECI has been key.
'I don't know how we could put a traditional contract together with the site not clear.' Knowing where each building is in the programme has also allowed Sheffield's property acquisition team to focus on the most important.
O'Reilly is nonchalant about the challenge. 'Simplistically we are starting at the two ends and moving to the middle, so we only need to clear what's immediately in front of us, ' says O'Reilly.
'We'll still be demolishing eight months into the contract.' There are two particularly contentious sites - an Ambulance depot sitting smack in the middle of what will be a new roundabout and a RSPCA centre nearby (see box). Both have to remain with undisrupted access until suitable alternative sites can be found.
'Fortunately the roundabout is in the middle, so it will be a year or a year and half before it becomes an issue, ' says O'Reilly.