BBC Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson might have beaten him as civil engineering’s number one choice to run the Highways Agency (NCE 24 April), but Institution of Highways & Transportation (IHT) president and Gifford civil engineering director David Tarrant is an imposing force on the UK’s road network.
Launching the IHT annual conference in Portsmouth today, Tarrant has made the event personal. "It is 30 years since I graduated from Portsmouth. I still have a picture from my graduation, with my wife, and well – you can see what 30 years in this industry can do to you," he laughs.
But the decision to hold the conference in Portsmouth is much more than a chance for him to reminisce. "I remember 30 years ago, modelling [indicated] everything on the roads was going to be horribly congested, and we would not have enough capacity. And look at what people are saying now.
"Since then so much has changed. Look at procurement in local government – PFI was not talked about 30 years ago. But wind all that back, and there is still the issue of how we handle the transport agenda in this country," he says.
Tarrant has blacktop in his blood, working as client, then consultant and was reputedly offered the top job at the Highways Agency. For his presidency he decided go back to basics and look at construction of the UK's motorways, which began 50 years ago.
The IHT has commissioned research which takes a critical look at transportation while not relying on any particular assumptions. "We did not want a bunch of grey-tops going on about how it was in my day. Not at all," he says.
According to Tarrant the general problem is that decisions on whether a particular job should be done are mired in consultations, inquiries and number crunching. "It is much more about having a vision plan deciding what you are going to do, rather than the minutiae of tests. The amount of financial testing going on is unbelievable," he says.
This testing has had serious consequences for Britain’s road building programme, he says. "Do we have a strategic road network in this country? Yes – in part, but I don't believe it's finished yet.
"Our motorway network is generally used for short journeys, and that is the difference between us and, say, France. We put a lot of money in, but are we getting it right? Should we be looking at our strategic road network in a diff erent way?"
Tarrant says the blueprint for the future of roads has already been published - in former British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington's report into the economics of transport in December 2006.
"We have to get back to Eddington – absolutely. How do we translate [his] messages into action? Trying to get political leadership and consensus on the way forward is extremely difficult," says Tarrant.
Public opinion is one area that Tarrant says received wisdom needs to be challenged, and he summarises what he believes the public generally think.
"People feel that building new roads creates more traffic. You can't build your way out of trouble, therefore look for some other solution.
"In addition, building roads is environmentally damaging, and again a bad thing – so look for something else. Both these arguments as a rule have outweighed the road building argument," he says.
Tarrant says the result is that "we have bottlenecks on our network and have never got the full benefit from our infrastructure. When you see some of the urban motorway construction [such as in Birmingham or west London] in the 1960s, you have to think 'that really was not the right way to do things'. But others [for example France] took a different view, building underground tunnels – we didn’t."
Now, more money needs to be ploughed into strategic plans to deal with the infrastructure we have now. "In 2000 we had a 10-year plan, but funding started to dry up," he says. "If we had a true 20-year plan, then at least you could look at a raft of schemes and know whether they were going to go ahead. The uncertainty factor is nearly as bad as not doing it. There is an absurdity over our strategic network at the national level."
To manage these bottlenecks now, Tarrant says new technology such as Active Traffic Management (ATM or hard shoulder running) is one of a range of practical solutions.
"New technology and managing demand have a role to play. But, the road network does need increases in capacity and the removal of bottlenecks to achieve the improvements Eddington was on about. But ATM is not enough – you need road widening too."
One concern is that £6bn over six years for the Highways Agency is just not enough. "It is a problem. £6bn does sound like a lot of money, but when you consider how much is in just keeping the network going, and then what the demands that will be placed on that network are – we have some significant gaps. And we are not a nation standing still. There are due to be 2M new households in the next few years – this is a real issue.
"This is when you have to ask – will ATM be enough if you do not have other transport opportunities – will it damage our competitiveness? We will not know for a few years," he says.
Tarrant is also vocal on the need to streamline the tendering process, which is expensive and time consuming. "Costs of tendering cannot be forgotten. Clients have to pay for it somewhere. If one looks at the variety of forms and information that are all saying essentially the same thing but are different, we have to deal with this.
"We need some form of standardisation. Both the industry and client side would save a lot of money."
Tarrant is also keen to boost the profile of the transportation professional, and is enthusiastic about the IHT Transport Planning Professional exam, which carries weight equivalent to a professional charter. Twenty have passed through in this, its inaugural year.
The next route to pushing the professional is building good links to politicians. Tarrant is clear – the IHT is a charity and does not lobby – but it is sharing its research findings with the Department for Transport (DfT) and has contributed to brainstorming sessions with the Conservatives.
"We do want to raise our profile with politicians, for example at select committee meetings, with all parties," he says. The first step is to get transportation professionals back into the jobs that matter.
"I want to try and re-establish the role of the professional in this country. There has been a move to generalists, but we want to say 'hang on, there are people who know their business, and have a wider view'," he says.
With his enthusiasm and good humour to the fore, Tarrant should be able to make significant inroads during his tenure.
Crossrail "Brilliant. And looking at the level of use on the railway these days, it is struggling, isn't it?"
M25 widening "It is the right balance between ATM and widening, but I have to declare an interest – Gifford is part of the preferred consortium."
New Highways Agency boss Graham Dalton "He is a civil engineer, has delivered major projects and is from the DfT. He will look at how to take the network forward, which does align with DfT policy."
Highways Agency major projects director Nirmal Kotecha "I think it is good to get people in from other industries. When I met him he said to me 'you even sound like Jeremy Clarkson'"
■ Born 1956
■ 1978 Graduates from Portsmouth Polytechnic
■ 1978-2004 Hampshire County Council. Various positions, rising to deputy director of environment
■ 2004-2006 Gifford transportation director
■ 2006-present Gifford civil engineering director
■ 2008 Institution of Highways & Transportation president
Married with two children, one works at Hampshire County Council where he began his career.