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Roads round table: How to deliver best value

Highways England wants the highways supply chain to find quicker, safer ways of working on the country’s major roads. At a recent NCE round table, consultants, contractors and clients came together to discuss the best way to deliver its new targets.

Highways England’s five-year framework to invest £5bn in Britain’s roads is, in the words of its outgoing chief executive Graham Dalton, “the largest investment in roads since the 1970s”. While this scale of spending is clearly no bad thing for the construction industry, the newly-formed government company has made it clear that it expects the money to go a long way.

Speaking to NCE in June, Highways England chairman, Colin Matthews, said: “We need innovation […] to get great value for taxpayer’s money. The successful big projects always have several companies involved who are collaborating effectively with common interests to achieve good outcomes for customers.”

Faced with the challenge of delivering nearly three times the level of work, highways contractors, consultants and clients recently came together at a round table event to explore what Highways England really expects from its supply chain and to establish what needs to be done to deliver the unprecedented levels of work.

roads round table

Roads round table: Clients, consultants and contractors discuss the issues

Here NCE outlines 13 key points from the event.

Government wants infrastructure to drive economic growth

Speaking in his capacity as head of the infrastructure delivery division for the Welsh government Andy Falleyn said the current government had put infrastructure further up the political agenda than he had ever known it. Now it was the duty of the construction industry to prove that it could make the most of the opportunity. Regardless of the country, he said government wanted infrastructure investment to deliver growth.

“Certainly from the Welsh government’s viewpoint - and I’m sure the same can be said for Scotland, England and Northern Ireland - what the government’s want is growth driven into the economy; it’s what infrastructure can do as opposed to infrastructure per se,” he said. “It’s all about getting the message right in terms of saying we’re not building roads but enabling access to services, we’re providing jobs.”

Communications need to be intuitive

Lesley Waud, market director, strategic highways, Atkins, said a more emotive and holistic approach to road signage would pay dividends. Referencing Atkins’ recent work on the M1, M3, A40 and A21 she explained the company had employed communications specialists to create a series of new signs for these roads that were more informative than traditional Chapter 8 traffic signs.

roads round table

Waud: “It’s no good telling people to check their fuel levels and then not giving them information about where the next services are”

“The traditional signs are all there as well but there’s additional messaging telling people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s no good telling people to check their fuel levels and then not give them information about where the next services are for example - that just increases anxiety for drivers.

“I always think if my 70-year-old mother got on the network again, what would she do if she came across a smart motorway? The term we’ve started using is the self-explaining network: it’s got to become intuitive.”

New watchdog has wider remit

Representing the newly formed transport watchdog, Transport Focus, the organisation’s road user director, Guy Dangerfield, explained how the organisation now represented a much wider range of transport users.

“Essentially our job is that of consumer watchdog.  So everything we do is about the end user of the transport system, whatever mode of transport that might be,” he said.  “And in roads it is all users of Highways England’s network, so not just people in cars, not just lorry drivers, it extends to the commissioners of the freight being moved, which is an interesting departure for us because for rail it’s just passengers.

“It includes someone cycling down bits of the all-purpose trunk road, people walking to church on a Sunday perhaps, so it’s a very wide remit.  But focused ultimately on finding out what those users think and want and working with Highways England, the Department for Transport and others to push forward recommendations that will achieve what people want to see.”

The knowledge is already out there; it’s time to act

David Tarrant, managing director, highways, Mott MacDonald argued that it was time for the industry to stop conducting research and start acting upon the information that was already available. “When you look at the amount of research that’s been done into a lot of these areas, be it behavioural issues, customer research issues, standards, a lot of this useful information we know a great deal about,” he said. “What we need to do is pull it all together in an overall programme and really drive it.”

He also worried that the highways sector would face a skills gap if it didn’t make itself more appealing to potential recruits. “If people have the choice of going into a particular branch of the sector, they probably wouldn’t choose our particular sector and that is something we need to address,” he said.

“We need to do more to promote careers in our sector and show new recruits that they really are great careers.”

But is there really a skills gap?

roads round table

What gap?: ConnectPlus chief executive Tim Jones disputed claims that there is a skills shortage

Tim Jones, chief executive of ConnectPlus, the company that has a 30-year DBFO contract to manage the M25, disputed the idea that there was a skills gap in the highways sector. “I’m not sure whether resources are a problem. Where will the resources come from? Where do you think the Greeks are going to go if they’ve got no jobs, where do you think the Spaniards are going to go if they’ve got no jobs, where do you think the Italians will go? They’ll come here to the UK. Our challenge will be to focus on quality, safety and infrastructure training to help them to be here and do the work. I’m not sure about a lack of resource per se - the type and quality, absolutely”.

Scottish investment isn’t just about building new things

Transport Scotland’s head of planning and design, major transport infrastructure projects, David Anderson said The Scottish Economic Strategy, published in March this year aimed to use infrastructure investment to improve opportunities for people and to create a better country. “We’re now brigaded with a cabinet secretary whose title is Infrastructure, Investment and Cities. That gives a pretty good heading of where that investment is going to go: an infrastructure investment plan that is across roads, houses, hospitals, schools and the rest. So there’s something there that recognises it’s about connectivity between land uses and not necessarily about building lots of new things.

Focus on the end-user

roads round table

Results: Balfour Beatty’s Stephen Tarr asked if engineers focused sufficiently on end user outcomes

Balfour Beatty managing director, major projects, Stephen Tarr said the sector would need to significantly change the way it thinks to meet new targets. “If you look at the ambition that’s been set for reducing KSIs, [killed or seriously injured]: a 40% reduction in serious injuries; that isn’t going to happen without a step change in the way that the road network is used,” he said. “Do we as civil engineers think sufficiently about the best way of meeting end user outcomes? All too often, we become preoccupied with creating the asset per se, as if that was the goal in itself, rather than actually focusing on whether the asset that’s being created actually meets the end-user requirement.”

Smart motorways need to explain why speeds are being restricted

Atkins group managing director, UK Transportation, Philip Hoare said that Highways England needed to do more to communicate why speeds were being restricted on motorways.

“Take something like the smart motorway programme. That actually ought to be about drivers understanding that we’re not just restricting their speed because we want to, but because actually it will improve their journey time. To date, advertising that message or sharing it has not been at the top of Highways England’s agenda,” he said.

Make it easy for road users to drive better

Highways England chief highways engineer, director network services, Mike Wilson said the whole of the highways supply chain needed to work together to make safe driving intuitive.
“It’s about how we are working with police forces, local authorities, other organisations and how we encourage road users to drive better.

“We need to make it easy for road users to understand what they have to do,” he said.

roads round table

Wilson: “We need to make it easy for road users to understand what they have to do”

“We have a campaign called Get smart, know your motorways to help people understand but, as more technology is introduced, the operational environment that people are going to use changes and we are going to need to help road users understand how to use them.”
Highways England could learn from TfL.

Balfour Beatty new business director Tony Gates thought the industry could learn from the way Transport for London communicates with the end user:

“By communicating you build trust. The most common message I hear [on the London Underground] is that all lines are running. So they don’t just tell me when there’s a problem, they can also tell me on my phone, they tell me as I move down the escalator, so they build up a relationship with the customer.

“I think there’s a massive challenge in roads, particularly in strategic roads about how you build a relationship with the customer because if you asked any customer about their journey, they’ll give you the whole journey and not focus on the strategic bit.”

Simplify procurement to free up delivery

“If we could find a way of freeing up the industry to deliver, and cut down on procurement - or make procurement easier and quicker - then that to me is the key,” said Amey business development, consulting and strategic infrastructure David Gillham. “There’s a huge programme of work to do, we all know the industry is crying out for more resource and yet we’re tying up a large amount of resource in the procurement process rather than the delivery process.”

Highways engineering needs to promote itself better in the media

CH2M director highways & bridges, Europe transportation and infrastructure said there was a distinct contrast between the television coverage of the Crossrail project and the portrayal of the highways sector in the “Life in the Fast Lane” documentary. “The programme did a great job at raising the profile of the industry and highlighting good practices, but I thought it could have done more to promote engineering and inspire young people to pursue careers in the sector,” he said.

Let’s not damn media portrayal too much

Skanska operations director, civil engineering, Glennan Blackmore argued that the industry shouldn’t damn “Life in the Fast Lane” too much. He said the documentary had changed attitudes among his friends. “When ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ came on they said, ‘You know what? I’m the idiot who makes life difficult for you guys. I’ve got a different respect for what you do now.’ I think outside of the industry, perhaps there’s more of the public who might have appreciated that programme. Yes, of course we could have done it better but let’s take what we achieved with the last one and maybe enhance it for the next one.”

Who was there

Guests at the NCE/ Atkins round table discussion were:

  • David Anderson, head of planning and design, major transport infrastructure projects, Transport Scotland
  • Glennan Blackmore, operations director, civil engineering, Skanska
  • Guy Dangerfield, road user director, Transport Focus
  • Andy Falleyn, head of infrastructure delivery division, Welsh Government
  • Tony Gates, director for new business, Balfour Beatty
  • David Gillham, technical director, consulting, Amey
  • Mark Hansford, editor, NCE
  • Philip Hoare, group managing director, UK Transportation, Atkins
  • Tim Jones, chief executive officer, Connect Plus
  • Peter McDermott, director highways & bridges, Europe Transportation and Infrastructure, CH2M
  • Stephen Tarr, managing director, major projects, Balfour Beatty
  • David Tarrant, managing director, highways, Mott MacDonald
  • Lesley Waud, market director, strategic highways, Atkins
  • Mike Wilson, chief highways engineer, director network services, Highways England


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