Building roads is a tried and tested way out of recession, says director of Tarmac National Contracting Paul Fleetham.
In these difficult times, one positive I draw from the challenging economic environment is that it is encouraging to see central and local government in agreement that infrastructure investment is a vital means to boost our economy and meet the long-term transport needs of the UK.
Last week, in a letter to Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association (LGA) announced an ambitious 10-point plan which could see local authorities potentially pooling billions of pounds of existing investments to drive forward road building and house building initiatives.
It is without doubt that the prevailing economic conditions lend themselves to Keynesian solutions. We must forge ahead with increases in public spending and accept the need to increase Government borrowing, in order to stave off depression.
It is a concern that Private Finance Investment (PFI) funding is not as forthcoming as it once was, however I do remain cautiously optimistic that the proposal for local authorities to bring forward joint resource for new road building and road improvement can provide the fiscal stimulus that local economies desperately need.
Acknowledging the compelling need for cash to kick-start the economy we must ensure that it is spent wisely to the best benefit of UK Plc. It is clearly essential that any new road building must drive best value and it is critical that any roads are built to last. Pooling resources is an excellent opportunity to encourage local authorities to share best practice in road building techniques, and encourage the adoption of new, more sustainable and durable pavement designs.
In the past, long-lasting pavement design has not always been adopted by local authorities – higher initial cost perhaps meant that sometimes long term cost-savings and environmental benefits were overlooked. A more durable road surface will pay dividends by improving road safety and reducing the frequency of future road repairs.
Failure to embrace these advanced technologies and move away from this short-termism in public sector procurement will only add to the ‘unbridgeable’ 11-year, £1 billion maintenance backlog that we currently face. The cost of reactive maintenance is taking up to 40 per cent of available maintenance budgets despite the fact that it is highly inefficient and costs up to 10 times more than an equivalent planned maintenance programme.
Now, more than ever before, it is vital that local authorities can draw upon private sector partners who can demonstrate added value and cost savings. Long-term partnering agreements between the public and private sectors are proven routes to deliver real efficiency improvements and promote best practice.
There are number of good examples of local authorities taking this approach. Nottinghamshire County Council’s response has been to develop the Nottinghamshire Highways Partnership (NHP), a collaborative partnership which aims to maximise resources for road design and maintenance. Tarmac has become a well-established NHP partner, working with the council to deliver a 10-year programme of highway maintenance and capital programmes – while bringing together private industry commercial expertise and experience.
The NHP is a living, breathing example of the public and private sectors working together to deliver best value and best practice in highway construction and maintenance. There are clear efficiency benefits to this type of working, but it takes considerable focus, resolve and commitment on the ground to deliver.
It remains to be seen how the pooling of local authority resources will bring forward road schemes and whether it can provide the economic kick-start required. Whatever the outcome, it is vital that for any new road construction projects the highways authorities learn from the mistakes of the past and deliver durable pavement designs that will not add to the UK maintenance backlog. Perhaps one way to do this will be to take a cue from initiatives like the NHP and explore the technological benefits, expertise and efficiency savings which can be delivered by long-term contracts with private sector partners.