A new procurement age is dawning at the Highways Agency under which a select band of consultants and contractors stand to benefit from an unbroken long term bonanza of work.
Framework agreements will help the Agency shave three to five years off the time it takes to build a road, it is claimed.
The Agency will turn to chosen suppliers without going out to tender and get cracking on 'front ended' preparation work on road schemes to meet the challenge laid down by the Government in July's 10 year transport plan.
The Agency hopes to unveil agreements with consultants before Christmas and with contractors before the end of the financial year. Teams will then be formed from up to six chosen consultants and contractors in each of the Agency's four main regions. Integrated teams will develop detailed designs and be in prime position to hit the ground running when schemes come through public inquiry.
The arrangements are expected to save up to one year pre-public inquiry and two years after, during a 10 year programme under which the Agency will carry out over £21bn worth of road building and improvement work.
The Agency will also have at its disposal a reliable resource of skilled engineers, with the ability to move teams around to ensure deadlines are met. In return the companies will benefit from regular work and the unpredictable effects of the traditional peaks and troughs of road investment must be reduced.
The Highways Agency's new procurement chief Steve Rowsell says: 'A firm working on one scheme may be waiting for various decisions to be made or the outcome of the public inquiry. We could identify another package of work for that team in the meantime to make up for that trough. Each project will be broken down into stages.
Whoever does the first stage may not end up doing the second stage. The agreements give us that flexibility.'
Much shuffling of cards could ensue but Rowsell promises that quality will be uppermost under the new agreements.
'The agreements will get us to the stage of early design and build contracts before we get to the public inquiry stage.
Completion of detailed design will be handed over to a design and build contractor who will be appointed. It will allow for crucial innovation early on.'
The Agency has been trialling early contractor involvement on the A500 pathfinder project at Stoke-onTrent but whether consultants and contractors can work together in the partnering spirit under the agreements is still open to question. The Association of Consulting Engineers' business director Chris-Irwin Childs, who sat in on the negotiations between the Agency and the industry, says: 'If every one plays the game it's going to be a very good time for the industry but changing the entrenched attitude of contractors is taking longer than any other industry reform. It will be good for consultants provided they are given the freedom to exercise proper involvement. There's a whole can of worms that's likely to be opened up.'
Childs is also concerned about whether teams in the frameworks will be paid for all the work they do. 'There is always a risk designs will get dropped because of objections during the public inquiry. We feel that unsuccessful teams should have their costs covered, ' says Childs. The Agency is said still to be thinking it over.
Despite reservations industry reaction has been very postive, but it knows it must deliver to high standards. Firms are jockying for position to demonstrate high quality staff, top health and safety standards and progressive supply chain arrangements and environmental management systems.
Rowsell says: 'We will make payments mainly on quality.
Teams are expected to be paid on an hourly rate with the incentive of increased payments mainly on quality and providing best value solutions.'
Firms losing out on in this round of frameworks should not give up: 'We are very willing to consider bids from any sized firm, ' says Rowsell. 'It would be quite possible to put small firms on the list. We are also very keen to encourage the larger consultants to have arrangements with some of the smaller firms. Smaller firms could also get together and joint venture. There will be more opportunities.'