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Interview | Jo Blewett, A9 upgrade leader

A9 3to2

Jo Blewett sits on the corner of an empty stage at New Civil Engineer’s UK Transport Conference, deep in thought.

She has been talking about Scotland’s £3bn, 129km A9 dualling scheme. As Transport Scotland’s programme manager, she is enthusiastic in her presentation on the topic, and at the front of her mind, she says, is always the end user.

Winding its way from Perth to Inverness, the road is being upgraded from a single to dual carriageway in a bid to boost economic productivity in the region. The Scottish Government has an ambitious plan to complete the 11 sections of dualling by 2025. Most sections now have preferred routes, although construction has yet to start on most, with the exception of the 7.5km Kincraig to Daldry stretch, which is set to open this summer.

Environmental and social challenges

But it is certain the road will pass through swathes of rural Scottish countryside and will skirt people’s homes, and it is these environmental and social challenges that are  so firmly on Blewitt’s mind. She is totally aware of the need for the A9 upgrade not to be seen as just a way to speed journeys between Perth and Inverness.

“The road is the enabler for so much more,” she says. “It’s more than us just building that and walking away, frankly. We need to work across agencies to make sure that those legacies are really being realised.”

The road is the enabler for so much more. It’s more than us just building that and walking away, frankly

And Blewett is just the person to deliver the vision. Practical and down-to-earth, she is a chartered civil engineer and holds a PhD in engineering from Heriot-Watt University, and is a member of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre’s governance board. She speaks quietly but with purpose about how innovation is being threaded into the programme to help amplify the message that this is more than just a road.

Which brings us to what Blewett seems most excited about: a tourism app.

Jo blewett crop

Jo blewett crop

Blewett: A9 is more than just building a road

The Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate has been testing ways to bring more risk and innovation into the public sector through its procurement process. Its new model, called CivTech, is positioned as a stepping stone between the public and private sectors.

Blewett admiringly describes its target audience as “people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

“So a client like us that’s not in the digital world, [we’re] not going and saying ‘we want an Android app that does X,Y and Z’ because we don’t know what we’re talking about,” she says.

“[CivTech] basically says ‘tell us what your challenge is and we will go to the market through our procurement exercise and find you a supplier’.”

Developing a tourism app

It works like this: a public sector organisation will work with CivTech to define a challenge it faces. For Transport Scotland, this was around promoting tourist destinations along the A9. Once that challenge is defined and described in up to 1,000 words, CivTech goes to the private sector and asks companies to come up with a response.

In this case, Transport Scotland got 24 responses pitching ideas from augmented reality to apps, but eventually went with a company called Learn to Love Digital which pitched an app called Hidden Gems. It will launch imminently after just one year in development.

Working with tourism bodies Visit Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, the app highlights sites of special interest as people are driving along the A9 route. It is a solution the original team would never have been able to deliver themselves. “As a client we need to be working outside the transport sector to get the best out of what we’re doing, so it was very positive in that sense,” she says.

For Blewett, this focus on the softer side of engineering is attractive and something she will be looking for from the supply chain once the main procurement gets going. “Like all clients, we’re looking for the balance of quality, cost, and programme… but I think for us it’s the things you can’t prescribe so tightly that we’re also interested in, so we’re interested in what a supplier’s view will be to community benefits,” she says.

From a supply chain’s point of view, any innovation around dealing with earthworks and materials is going to be very important

As well as work to promote tourism along the route, there is also the Academy 9 programme. More than 2,000 pupils have taken part in workshops led by the A9 team since the programme was set up in August 2015.

During the workshops, schoolchildren learn about the engineering challenges involved in dualling the road with the aim of getting them enthused about such a major construction project happening on their doorstep. Blewett cites it as another example of where prospective contractors can put in the extra effort.

But as the A9 upgrade progresses, just keeping the road open with as little disruption as possible will be of primary concern to locals and a huge challenge. Blewett is keen to see different ideas on how it can be done. Local communities rely on the A9 for their everyday transport needs.

Local challenge

“I think there needs to be a recognition of the corridor we’re working in – the quality of the landscape, the proximity – although it’s not heavily populated, there are communities there that rely on the road itself for their lifeline access.

“So making sure that they still have the ability to go about their business is going to be quite a challenge,” she says.

“From a supply chain’s point of view, any innovation around dealing with earthworks and materials is going to be very important because it’s just the mass haul of material on a route that you are trying to keep open for local and strategic access is going to be a very difficult thing to manage.”

Blewett is reluctant to pick out any one challenge, saying instead that it will be a balance between caring for the environment, and more social aspects of the project, and the gritty technical parts.

Framework procurement

This summer, the project was still in its early stages. Until 9 August contractors were applying for a spot on the project’s £10M advance works framework. Across four years, suppliers will carry out site clearance, drainage and piling works on the 11 sections of the project; winners will be appointed in November.

But the pace is now picking up. In late August, four contractors made the shortlist for a £70M contract to design, build and maintain the next 9.5km long section between Luncarty and the Pass of Birnam.

The shortlisted bidders are a Farrans Construction and Roadbridge joint venture, a Wills Bros Civil Engineering and Lagan Construction JV, Dragados, and Balfour Beatty.

The contract will be awarded in the first half of 2018. More packages are expected to come to market in the coming months,

So now it is time to think about what Transport Scotland will be looking for from its supply chain.

It is clear, however, that above all else Blewett thinks most about the end user as the heart of the project. “I suppose – and this is a personal view – it would be nice if people didn’t notice the road had been dualled at the end of it [the programme]: that it fitted within its environment.”

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