THE HIGHWAYS AGENCY is developing plans for wholesale privatisation of the UK's trunk road network.
The Agency confirmed this week that private firms could begin to take over full financing, maintenance and operation of the network after the first tranche of term maintenance and super agency contracts comes to an end in 2000.
However, Agency director of network and customer services Peter Nutt said that while the first super agency deals are due for renewal in April 2000, operators are all expected to have earned extensions for good performance. This is likely to push the opportunity for privatisation two years into the new century.
The first six super agencies to be renewed are Areas 3, 5, 6, 8, 23 and 24, which effectively cover areas around London from West Sussex to East Anglia plus trunk roads in south and west London. The remaining 18 and their corresponding term maintenance contracts come up for renewal in 2001 and 2002.
Nutt said the Agency was initially expecting to use the opportunity to move from annual schedule of rates-based deals to five to seven year service level contracts. Consultants and contractors will be expected to bid as design and build teams rather than separately as before.
But he confirmed that the Agency was also considering requesting bids for new finance, maintain and operate arrangements to run over a 15 year period.
Nutt said it was considering putting out parallel tenders to compare the cost of a maintain and operate contract against a finance, maintain and operate one. 'That way we will see how much it is costing us to get the private finance element,' he explained.
Finance, maintain and operate contracts for roads were proposed by the Government in its autumn White Paper A new deal for trunk roads in England.
Nutt warned that separate plans in the White Paper to de-trunk much of the network and hand it over to local authority control would lead to less demand for service operator agencies.
But he expected the Government's recent decision to switch from annual trunk road funding to awarding cash over three year periods to allow Agency engineers to plan ahead and open new opportunities for roads consultants and contractors.
The Agency was now able to 'put maintenance top of the list of our priorities', said Nutt. He added that setting a longer term work programme was the key to making this happen.
'We want to make the best use of the network and deliver the right level of service to the customer,' he said. 'We think the best way to do that is to move our contracts to service delivery from schedule of rates.'
The next step, he said, was to transfer more of the risk to the private sector in a finance, maintain and operate arrangement.
The Agency is about to start physical work on pilot route management schemes which should focus priorities. This will enable bidders to get a clear picture of the service level they will be expected to provide.
Pilot routes will be set up on the A14, M62 and A1 north of Newcastle. Advice is about to be issued to Agency area route
managers to allow them to start work.
The Highways Agency this week asked for expressions of interest for the construction and operation of regional traffic control centres. These projects will be managed as public/private partnerships.