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Roads minister reaches out to engineers to stay ahead of emerging technologies

Politicians should do more to talk up the role of engineers in boosting the UK’s economic success – that’s the message new strategic roads minister John Hayes is eager to drive home.

Speaking to NCE in the days after he took up his position in prime minister David Cameron’s recent Cabinet reshuffle, Hayes was emphatic about the need to celebrate British engineering on the world stage.

“I think we’ve actually undersold our engineering expertise, the quality of what we do,” he says. “So much so, that if you think of public perception, you often hear people saying this: ‘Oh Germany’s a great country for engineering.’ I always say to people: ‘Yes, but so are we.’

“We are one of the world leaders, and have been since the industrial revolution. So to talk up British engineering and manufacturing so that people understand its world beating quality is part of what I think politicians can help with.”

The need to talk up the UK’s global engineering position was hitting the headlines in the days surrounding NCE’s interview with Hayes. US consultancy giant Aecom had just announced its intention to buy rival URS – both firms that had previously absorbed large UK consulting firms.

Although the Arcadis/Hyder deal had yet to emerge, commentators had already talked of the potential shape-shifting that could see consultancy evolve into a Big Four scenario similar to accountancy.

Such a dramatic shift in the consultancy world could be greatly positive, Hayes believes, but politicians must ensure the UK doesn’t lose out.

“I want [engineering] organisations, your readers, to know that they have a minister that is determined to ensure that these kind of seismic changes have the best chance of happening in our nation’s interests.

I think we’ve actually undersold our engineering expertise, the quality of what we do

John Hayes, roads minister

“Sector bodies; the chartered institutes; the sector organisations, they’ve been banging this drum for a long time,” he adds. “I’ve met a number of them over a number of years and encouraged their work because I know what a great job they’ve done.

“Sometimes it’s the public policy makers that perhaps haven’t echoed their message clearly or loudly enough.

“I am immensely enthusiastic about engineering. This is not something that I’ve thought of in the last few days or weeks. Over my time as a shadow minister, and throughout my time as a minister, I’ve come to understand really, that in order to get our economy in the place that it needs to be, we need to refocus on some of the skills that engineers bring to our economy.”

Hayes points out that he has gathered an appreciation of the “core skills” that civil engineers bring to the party in his previous ministerial roles which covered education and skills and the energy sector (see box).

John Hayes MP

1997 Elected as MP for South Holland and The Deepings
2010 Appointed further education, skills and lifelong learning minister, with responsibility for apprenticeships, careers guidance and vocational education
2012 Appointed energy minister
2013 Appointed minister without portfolio at the Cabinet Office and senior parliamentary adviser to the prime minister
2014 Appointed strategic roads minister 

As a result, he is primed for his transport role, which comes at a pivotal time in the way roads are viewed – by politicians and by the sector. A huge investment programme worth £10.7bn is being pledged for the next parliament from 2015 to 2021. It will bring the total spend on upgrading the road network between 2010 and 2021 to £24bn – and the mechanism by which that is to be delivered is also facing a major overhaul.

Proposed reforms to the Highways Agency will go to the House of Commons in the autumn, and if approved, the arms-length government agency will become a publicly owned company akin to Network Rail, with similar governance, long term funding settlement and public and political regulation and oversight.

The reformed Agency will receive a five year funding settlement, underpinned by legislation. This will represent a move away from its annual business plan and towards longer term planning that will generate greater certainty of workflow.

Added to the funding and structural shifts, the way capacity is brought into the strategic road network has seen changes, in particular with the advent of congestion-busting smart technology that you find on motorways – a particularly vital resource when adding lane kilometres to the network is either not enough or not desired.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Hayes speaks often of the need for core engineering skills to evolve and to be added to. This is not merely to reinforce the point that British expertise has been great since the industrial revolution, but because such evolution is essential for maintaining Britain’s competitive edge, he believes.

Echoing Cameron’s recent mantra, Hayes insists: “Our economy’s future chance of success lies as a high tech, high skilled nation.”

Over my remaining lifetime, and certainly the lifetime of my children, what vehicles look like and how they are engineered will change

John Hayes, roads minister

While Hayes refuses to predict the date of impact for any shift in the way that roads are used, built and managed, he is sure changes are coming.

“I can’t say with certainty what our road network’s going to look like 100 years from now – it would be impossible for me to do so, given the pace of technological change,” he says.

“It’s certainly true that drivers will want more information provided for them as they use the road network and that can improve the way in which the network operates” he adds.

“It’s very likely that over my remaining lifetime, and certainly the lifetime of my children, that what vehicles look like and how they are engineered will change.”

As a result, policy decisions being made now must be sufficiently flexible to respond to those changes. But industry needs to build in that flexibility too and go further to stay ahead of technological changes, he suggests.

“I think it’s true that successful private sector organisations are organisations which maintain an understanding of where the cutting edge is. And that’s certainly true in this field.

Successful private sector organisations are organisations which maintain an understanding of where the cutting edge is

John Hayes, roads minister

“So there will be those mindful of the cutting edge of change, the cutting edge of technological development, who will tool up to take advantage of it.

“It’s not for me to preach to your readers, but in my own business background I saw that those companies that were the most successful were those that did just that.

“I think there are core competencies that remain, but it’s really a matter of what you add incrementally to those competencies that make the difference between success and its absence.”

Hayes says the government is trying to support this change with the long-term funding commitment that the Highways Agency reforms would enable. This, he says is generating confidence within the private sector, which he hopes in turn creates a willingness to invest and evolve.

With all this change and with the levels of investment being pledged, there remains one other element that will be vital to ensuring the work is delivered in a way that is fit for purpose in the future.

“It’s great that government has made this financial commitment, this resource commitment,” he says. “It’s great the government is putting into place a long term vision for roads, and for rail.

“It’s great that we’re looking at the structural changes necessary to deliver this through the reform we’re making legislatively. But actually we’re going to have to work with a whole range of partners to make all of this a reality. “I know how important engineers are going to be to delivering this plan. Let me use NCE to call today for a creative dialogue with all the partners that are going to be at the forefront of delivering this exciting plan.”

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