I had the pleasure of addressing Mott MacDonald’s global highways forum last week. Why, I demanded of this experienced bunch of professionals, does the UK make such hard work of managing its valuable £80bn road network?
More specifically, why, given that 90% of the nation’s vehicle transport and 40% of freight is carried on our roads, is their condition so poor, is congestion still holding back business, and vital enhancements held up for decades in planning?
OK it’s not all their fault. While Motts would claim an influence over the UK highways network, my questions were really aimed at the profession in general. And with the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin this week championing roads investment as giving £15 for every £1 spent, it is appropriate that I spread the debate more widely.
So question 1 - asset management. How will the profession move from the current shambolic patch and mend mentality toward a proper 21st century approach to the management of a very valuable asset?
Specifically, why do local authorities still measure success in terms of the number of potholes filled? And why does the Highways Agency still measure its success in terms the price it can wring out of its supply chain?
As we read in NCE this week, the water industry says the next five years will see new technology driving asset management.
So what are the similar technologies planned to help manage our valuable road assets - on which the economy depends - in a way that exceeds expectation and makes roads truly an asset - not a drain on resources or a destructive part of the community
Then there’s question 2 - enhancing the network. What is going wrong if a government priority scheme like the A14 still takes six years to reach start of construction?
Surely the industry is failing if it cannot ensure that this vital national asset cannot be sold to the public as a good thing?
The fact that so-called “Swampy” protects are now returning across the UK is a worry.
And finally question 3 - How are we going to pay? Clearly the answer is through taxation but as I said in this column last week, the current model of fuel tax and vehicle excise duty revenue is broken.
Going green will surely kill the economy unless road user charging is embraced. France does it successfully as do many other parts of Europe. So what’s stopping UK professionals taking the lead and demanding we embrace relatively simple technology?
The answers are all complex, intertwined but worthy of discussion beyond the level of “it’s all the fault of planning, politicians and short term thinking”.
UK civil engineering boasts world leading highway experts. Economies need growth and roads are key. This is an opportunity to grasp.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor