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Roads' £21bn man

Tim Matthews ran Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals for seven years before starting a five-year contract as chief executive of the Highways Agency two months ago. Can he deliver tough targets under the Government's 10 year transport plan? Damian Arnold report

For a man charged with delivering 580km of motorway widening; 30 bypasses and 100 road improvements new Highways Agency chief executive Tim Matthews betrays no signs of stress. This is even more remarkable given that he also has to oversee resurfacing of more than half the network, redressing the backlog in road repairs and reducing congestion by 5% when it is forecast to rise by 28%.

Matthews pinpoints procurement as a key issue if the targets are to be met within 10 years.

The major problem of funding has already been addressed with the promise by Government of over £21bn over 10 years; and Matthews has assurances from the construction industry that skills shortages will not hinder progress.

This early optimism from the man who spent 10 years at the Department of Health is based on the fact that the Agency is already 'way ahead' of the NHS in changing traditional forms of tendering and working more with industry.

Symptomatic of the changing approach are the five-year framework agreements being firmed up with consultants and contractors that will bypass tendering negotiations and allow work to gear up on schemes before the public inquiry stage (see box). Matthews says: 'Very much part of my role so far has been to talk to the industry about what they want from us. There are anxieties about paying costs up front under the frameworks and whether costs incurred on designs not taken forward might be wasted. We've talked through different options and will work through this and learn from our experiences.'

Once road schemes are under way on what will be mainly design and build contracts the Agency will be more hands-on over procurement of materials.

It has already successfully trialled 'construction management' on the A556 near Manchester where it pays its suppliers direct. It is hoped closer relationships with suppliers will lead to fewer claims, but Matthews warns that CM 'will not be right for every scheme'.

Much of the speeding up of road schemes will be down to ministers tinkering with the public inquiry process. But Matthews does promise the Agency will do 'better and earlier consultation with environmental groups' to help speed a notoriously slow plough.

Other major changes are anticipated in the Matthews era such as increased design, build finance and operate procurement and integration of Term Maintenance Contractors and Managing Agents into one body.

He says: 'We will have to wait for the results of the trial of Managing Agent Contractors in Northamptonshire but I strongly support it as long as we can ensure that both sides retain some independence of role. It will simplify our relationship with the police and local highway authorities. They will have just one Agency to deal with.'

Watch this space.

Matthews goes onto predict that DBFO road schemes with shadow tolls weighted 3:1 on journey time reliability versus other criteria will be prominent.

Twenty five per cent of all road building will be privately financed.

New schemes on top of those in the current plan may come forward from the increasingly powerful Regional Planning Bodies, says Matthews.

Transport minister Keith Hill told the Commons last week that RPBs would work with government offices to develop schemes in areas not covered by the regional multi-modal studies.

The MMS' are now identifying how to match better public transport and new road construction to improve local travel.

But the MMS are not expected to complete until 2002.

New schemes within MMS areas will also be considered if they are found not to conflict with the general strategy. 'This request sends a very clear message, ' says Matthews. 'Our network and customer services division work more closely RPBs and others like the Regional Development Agencies.'

Closer to home Matthews accepts that the Agency's own 1,700 strong workforce will need to be skilled up to adapt to changes in the roads industry.

He says: 'New skills in procurement, IT and telecommunications will be needed.'

Matthews has already toured the Agency to prime staff for the changes afoot and is delighted with the 'buzz' among the staff.

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