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Get a GRIP


As Gordon Brown starts his transition from chancellor to prime minister, it is vital that public transport procurement gets its act together.

This week's report by Mike Nichols into cost ination on the Highways Agency's Targeted Programme of Improvements highlights the fundamental challenge for the Department for Transport - to agree precisely what has to be done. Early.

As Nichols explains: 'The report is not saying the Agency is paying more than it should do for its schemes. Rather, there have been signicant increases in cost estimates.' This is signi cant because it is an old, old story when it comes to publicly financed infrastructure and, in particular, transport schemes. And with Brown's forthcoming comprehensive spending review set to reveal a significant tightening of public sector funding going forward, getting more for the money will be vital in future.

By all accounts rail is at last getting itself together when it comes to delivering to time and budget, and the Nichols Report recognises that Network Rail's Guide to Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) process has made signicant in-roads towards controlling programme and expenditure.

The recommendation that GRIP be adapted for use on highway schemes is perhaps the nal nail in the Highways Agency's once-lauded procurement strategy. Even the railways are now capable of delivering better value for public money.

But the big change on the railways is less to do with how projects are delivered - although clearly there has been substantial reform in the way construction activities are procured and managed - but more to do with keeping very m control over what has to be done.

It is a point echoed by Terry Morgan, chief executive of Tube Lines, as he attempts to drive a private sector approach into London Underground.

Historically projects on the Underground were planned and procured around cost estimates based largely on available budgets rather than scope of work.

This deliberate underscoping led to projects such as the Jubilee Line Extension tripling in cost and missing deadline by two years, and more recently to station refurbishments increasing in cost 10-fold.

The battle that the Highways Agency has been waging has been less about construction risk and more about planning risk. Therefore what Nichols suggests is not rocket science and is not even really very new thinking. But it is stuff that simply has to be said.

Fundamentally, good project management is fairly straightforward: decide early what is needed and then x the scope.

After that, realistic cost estimates must be found based on the actual work rather than the available budget before moving forward toward construction.

So simple in theory. The key is to ensure that it is possible to take each step without being hindered by political or outside interference.

The Highways Agency has some work to do. It must get greater clarity over what has to be done. It must get greater clarity over what cash is available. Then it must get the right skills and processes in place to deliver to the strict regime that Prime Minister Brown will demand.

And the ultimate solution starts with clear thinking at the Department for Transport.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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