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Highways Agency to bring project management in-house

Highways Agency chief executive Archie Robertson this week warned that he is going to wrest back control of managing his projects from private sector consultants and contractors.

Speaking exclusively to NCE, Robertson said that he is boosting his in-house project-management expertise in a bid to crack down on poor early cost estimates that have blighted the Agency’s major projects. “Some of the estimates done by consultants in the past have proven not to be good and we didn’t spot them,” said Robertson. We need to play our part in the commercial decision making.”

The move is a direct response to Mike Nichols’ review of the Highways Agency’s major roads programme, published in March (NCE 22 March). This review was commissioned by then transport secretary Alistair Darling in July 2006, after the estimated cost of a series of road schemes rose by up to 300%, following entry into the Agency’s Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI).

Nichol’s damning report slammed the Agency’s abilities to estimate costs, manage risk, procure work and deliver to time and budget, and saw the major projects boss Keith Miller axed.

Robertson has spent the summer working through the recommendations and is now set to overhaul the major projects division, with the emphasis on improving early cost estimates.

“Early Contractor Involvement (ECI), I maintain, is a very good tool in the right place, but we have got to be in the position to make choices about what is affordable and what is not,” he said. “We need to be beefed up.”

Robertson is recruiting for a commercial director, a major projects director – ideally from a roads contractor – and project managers to staff the revamped division.

The move echoes that of Transport for London (TfL), which admitted last year that it needed more project-management experience to better control its projects, after high-profile failures on the London Underground and the Coulsdon bypass (NCE 9 November 2006).

TfL has since restructured its highways maintenance contracts to play a much more hands-on role (NCE 14 December 2006).

Robertson said the internal restructure will leave the Agency well placed to deliver its future programme, which is expected to see £1bn a year, rising with inflation, made available until 2016.

And he played down industry concerns that there was a hiatus in spending while the restructure takes place (NCE 13 September), but warned that there would be changes in the type of future projects.

“It is not going to be as it was before. There are going to be fewer, bigger projects as we go into the next period,” he said.

“Another thing that will change is that we are getting more excited about technological solutions to offset the rising cost of road widening,” he added.

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