The first partnership to provide a fully integrated approach to county highway management and maintenance is claimed by Northamptonshire County Council and WS Atkins.
Management and maintenance of Northamptonshire's county roads will now be delivered by just one company rather than the 50 different organisations that used to do the job.
The move is part of a deal worth over £200M for WS Atkins to meet all Northamptonshire County Council's (NCC) highway needs over the next five years.
NCC and WS Atkins claim the contract marks the first fully integrated approach to county highways, with both consultancy and contractual skills coming from just one supplier.
WS Atkins' duties on Northamptonshire's 4,000km highway network began on 1 October after more than 16 months of consultation, prequalification and tendering. The contract involves WS Atkins in all aspects of network management, highway maintenance, scheme design, street lighting management and maintenance, laboratory services and urban traffic control.
'The contract is a big step away from the traditional adversarial relationships, ' says WS Atkins managing director of integrated services David Robinson.
'A fully integrated approach means a reduction in interfaces that should improve efficiency and squeeze costs.'
NCC first started to look for alternative ways of delivering highway services in April 2000.
Diminished funding for highway services in recent years had reduced capacity within NCC's highway department that needed to be topped up or radically reformed to deal with changing demands and best practice.
'We needed to modernise our approach, ' says NCC county highways officer Mike Bordiss.
'A rethink of the way we worked with local people was also important. Becoming more community led to deliver what people want, rather than taking the traditional engineering led approach, was essential.'
The consultation process was designed to compare top up costs with an integrated solution to choose the right way forward.
NCC opened this up to involve a number of leading highway management and maintenance companies in the process.
'We included the private sector early on to find out if they would actually be interested in providing an integrated solution.
But we also wanted to draw on their expertise to find out what was possible as well as financially viable, ' says Bordiss.
Even the tender documents were discussed and workshops were held to investigate the workability of various payment and specification options. The final tender included a mix of lump sums and scheduled rates for annual maintenance work and target costs for schemes between £50,000 and £500,000.
'The split between payment mechanisms puts real emphasis on continual improvement, ' says Robinson. 'Use of target costs, with sharing of savings plus penalties for overspends, on projects down to £50,000 gives a real incentive to perform well.
'One of the more unusual areas to be included in the lump sum pricing is winter maintenance. But winter does occur once a year, every year, so shouldn't be treated or priced as an emergency event. And, while some winters may be severe and others mild, they average out over the five year term.'
WS Atkins was awarded the five year contract in July last year, with an option for an extra three years if all goes well. WS Atkins director Adrian Sheppard is confident. 'Throughout the consultation period and tender process NCC tried to pass on its working philosophy and strategy to us, ' he says.
'NCC's aim was to ensure that whoever won the contract was on the same wavelength in terms of working culture and ambitions. This has helped us to forge a good working relationship right from the start.'
Staff from both NCC and its previous term maintenance contractor, Serco, were actively involved in the consultation process and a total of 190 staff transferred to WS Atkins as part of the deal. The aim was to develop a seamless partnering relationship between NCC and WS Atkins, which even extended to the partnership logo.
WS Atkins had just under three months between award and starting work in Northamptonshire and spent this preparation period transferring data and setting up new IT systems.
According to Sheppard the aim was to transfer the services over to WS Atkins without visible change to the public.
'The only glitches we suffered were from our new IT systems but they were quickly sorted, ' he says.
NCC's contract with WS Atkins is still in its infancy but other county councils are already keen to find out how a fully integrated highways services could benefit them. Bordiss says: 'The integrated approach suits our needs but it may not be for everyone.
There are elements and concepts within this contract which could be beneficial to other county highway departments or even other sectors within local government, but consultation is key.'