Roads minister Andrew Jones fears that the ambitious highways construction programme could be hit by the same crisis as the troubled rail investment plan.
Jones told delegates at NCE’s UK Roads 2015 conference in London last week that the road building sector had to grow by a third to cope with Highways England’s spending programme.
The government last month had to step in and suspend suspend some major rail electrification work amid concerns that Network Rail was failing to deliver projects in its £38.5bn five year plan on time and on budget.
Jones is in charge of ensuring Highways England can effectively manage its own £15bn programme - but admits to being worried.
“My concern is about delivery,” he told the conference.
“The [rail] announcement 10 days ago [was because] delivery has faltered.
“It is about having the capacity to deliver. And it is what worries me most about the roads [investment]. I want Highways England ready to run with schemes worth £3bn a year.”
Jones said sudden growth in the road building supply chain would have to coincide with surges in rail, nuclear power and flood defence work.
“All these projects have entered the competition for ambitious recruits,” he said. “The government’s commitment to create 3M apprenticeships will help. But we need the industry to get behind the plan, too.
“So when the road consultations have finished and the work goes out to tender, we will ask - do bidders have access to the skills to get the job done?”
Jones warned that foreign firms would be used for British roads projects where necessary.
“It might be necessary - but it would be a failure of the British construction industry to have to do that,” he said.
The minister told construction chiefs at the conference: “We will work with you and support you. But now it is down to you - the professionals and experts, the leaders of your companies - to get the work done.”
Roads contractors are under increased pressure to delivery efficiently since Highways England was established earlier this year.
The £292M contract to widen a section of the A14 in Cambridgeshire is currently being re-tendered because Highways England was unsatisfied with the quality of bids it received (NCE 11 May)