Life for the designers and suppliers of Britain's asphalt infrastructure has been relatively easy, traditionally speaking. Virtually all the material that could be mixed went straight into roads. There was a single customer, the state. Mixes were prescribed, there was no argument - if a surface wheel tracked after two years or so, well, it was the customer's fault.
There was no incentive to innovate, certainly none for a supplier to stick its neck out and suggest a different, better performing mix of materials.
But all this has changed in recent times largely because of privatisation, as was emphasised last month by the Highways Agency's director of network and customer services Peter Nutt. Nutt indicated that the process has yet to run its full course, with the agency now looking into private firms eventually taking over full financing, maintenance and operation of the trunk road network.
As it is, the current level of privatisation, especially of highway maintenance, means there is now a multitude of private sector clients looking for road building materials, all of them after the fastest, most durable and cost-effective solutions to their highway construction and maintenance problems.
Government still sets the standards but dogma no longer rules. Nutt made clear that recipe specifications are to continue giving way to performance ones, three year budgets will take over from those of one year, and the formerly immutable policy of contract award to the least price stands at risk of replacement through whole life costing.
'The changes of the last several years really are radical and have opened up tremendous opportunities for the use of new materials,' says Tarmac Quarry Products chief operating officer Bill Bolsover. Bolsover is also chairman of next month's Modern Asphalts Conference, promoted by NCE and Modern Asphalts magazines.
The asphalt sector was used to create a single customer base and had yet to become sufficiently customer focused and market orientated, he says. 'But we've already gone a long way to improve and broaden the range of our products. What remains is for us to improve the confidence of our customers in the effectiveness and reliability of those products.'
Asphalt-based technology has developed hugely through the mid and late 1990s, in response to the construction industry's changing demands. Not long ago, about the only surfacing options open to the highway engineer were surface dressing - ie, hot bitumen and chippings - and 50mm thick hot rolled asphalt. These two are still available although now their components can be highly modified to produce much more efficient surfacings in terms of performance, durability and safety.
They have also been joined by thin surfacings and micro surfacings, both generic titles covering a range of highly engineered materials particularly appropriate for specific uses. Characteristics such as intense durability, low noise, low spray, high skidding resistance, fast application and economy can be mixed and matched.
Some of the asphalt sector's new products lend themselves to reuse of existing materials. Cold mix/cold lay materials have also been developed. Some are particularly energy efficient in terms of their production. Others offer aesthetic qualities such as colour and surface texture.
Hanson managing director Simon Vivian says the shift of control away from the public to the private sector has had a liberating effect on the asphalt sector. 'There was a lot of latent talent there, a lot of stored energy waiting to be released,' he says.
The sector is now free to be much more creative. Government's determination to exploit the existing roads network in Britain to the full gave asphalt suppliers a continuing opportunity to exercise that creativity in developing better performing materials which represented increasingly good value.
Vivian's views are shared by Aggregate Industries UK managing director David Tidmarsh, who adds that the overall marketplace has shrunk as well as altered in nature, and this fact too was acting as a catalyst for change. 'We were too focused on roads, for which demand is down, and lost market share to concrete in other areas such as pedestrianised precincts.
'Winning back market share has meant developing asphalt products that look better than concrete, that perform better and are more cost effective.'
The response of suppliers has gone well beyond developing asphalt technology - it extends to the way companies organise themselves and market their products, according to David Neave, managing director of RMC Aggregates.
'We viewed the changes as a threat rather than an opportunity,' he says.
'That quickly reversed. We restructured our surfacing business to put this on a national rather than regional basis, to play in the big league; and started compiling a portfolio of bespoke, branded products.'
Sophisticated asphalt requires bitumen binders with enhanced properties, fine tuned to suit the required application. Hans Hammarstrom is the managing director of bitumen specialist Nynas UK. He says: 'The pressures are on us to come up with increasingly safe, economic and environmentally friendly materials. We must also become more effective at marketing, to tell the world what we now have to offer.'