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Response | Highways England is increasingly adept

It is an exciting time for UK infrastructure – after decades of Cinderella status, investment in it now has cross-party and national consensus as the best way to increase the UK’s lamentable productivity growth and spread that national prosperity across the UK.

Tim chapman crop

Tim chapman crop

Tim Chapman

Although most people and freight travel by roads, investment in rail has taken the lion’s share of government investment in recent years, while important trading routes have become increasingly congested, adding to the UK’s carbon emissions.

Finally Highways England is getting the funds to unlock some of those most intractable problems – and hopefully the experience learnt and the rolling benefits will enable them to persuade the government to maintain investment in UK transport until it matches the most efficient trading nations with whom this country must compete.

Delivery certainty

The UK’s infrastructure industry has honed its capabilities over the past decade and a half –

proving the ability of designers and constructors to fulfill their early promises and deliver projects

like High Speed 1 and the Olympics on time and on budget – while meeting some of the most demanding global expectations for safety, environmental mitigation and stakeholder management.

And Highways England is becoming increasingly adept as a  client – helped by getting dependable investment over a prolonged period in a large programme of works from which they and their supply chain can learn and innovate.

Learning lessons

Highways England complex infrastructure programme director Chris Taylor’s honesty is refreshing. While great accomplishments are being achieved on the A14, the first element of the programme, great lessons from that project are available for learning and applying on Stonehenge and the Lower Thames Crossing, and on the next phase of complex projects such as the Trans-Pennine expressway and the Arundel bypass.

In the past glory days of great British road building when the core of the motorway network was built, most of the lessons learnt were technical ones. In this next iteration of highway creation, the lessons relate to framework management, packaging, procurement, organisation, project leadership, alignment of incentives, continuity of personnel and retention of knowledge from phase to phase – that scheme-specific knowledge that is so hard won and so easily squandered.

The supply chain, in turn, is starting to learn that most critical lesson of all: that real project success is truly satisfying customers.

Global reputation

By Highways England learning from other infrastructure sectors as well as from its own observations, it stands ready to allow the construction industry to further burnish its international reputation for safe, timely and cost-effective delivery of projects with a much higher focus on tangible outcomes.  

  • Tim Chapman is London infrastructure director at Arup

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