The Highways Agency and civil engineering contractors are locked in talks about how to deliver the biggest raft of road building projects for 20 years.
Damian Arnold reports.
Huge motorway widening programmes on the M1, M6 and M25 are expected to emerge soon from the government's multi-modal studies process and be added to the Highway Agency's programme.
Over the last two months the Agency has been in detailed talks with contractors as to how the work will be procured.
Much flesh has been put on the bones of a strategy, launched last November, says Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief economist Jim Turner.
'The document was a little vague, ' he says. 'There have been many meetings over the past month concentrating on the packaging of work and the use of framework contracts for big projects'.
With 575km of motorway widening and 30 strategic bypasses to complete under the government's 10 year transport plan, the industry wants to know how such massive slices of work will be packaged up.
'We are talking with the Agency as to whether the work will be packaged on a regional basis or whether they will be large, medium and small packages so that the Agency can make use of different sized firms, ' says Turner.
Highways Agency chief executive Tim Matthews says the procurement model under discussion for the biggest contracts does involve individual contractors or consortia over the long term. In return, contractors will have to give assurances that they will have enough staff of the right quality to carry out the work.
Five year framework contracts, under which five consultants in each region prepare and design big schemes in the Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI), are already in place. Similar partnerships for smaller schemes under £5M have also been set up with contractors. Now arrangements with contractors for the big TPI schemes are being talked about.
Matthews stops short of promising framework agreements. But if the Agency gets 50km of motorway widening added to its TPI, for example, the work could be packaged to give one bidder the whole job, let in chunks, between now and 2011 when the 10 year plan targets are due to be met.
'We are looking at letting a package of schemes which might not all be delivered at the same time but in sequence, ' says Matthews. 'We want to give the contractor the commitment of a series of works over an extended period of time. We are not in a position yet to say this is what we will do but we are very open to it.'
The recent talks mark what Turner describes as 'closer cooperation' between the Agency and the industry.
'We are entering a new phase of liaison with the Agency, ' he says. 'Historically, we communicated via the Road Infrastructure Liaison Committee which was organised region by region.
We are now having subject specific meetings. It's less formal but much more focussed'.
He cites a recent meeting on certification of contractors' workforces as an example of improved openness.
Turner is particularly pleased with the forming of the Agency's Supply Chain Management Teams (SCMTs) to oversee the procurement of big schemes and be the principal liaison between the Agency and contractors. The dedicated units will focus on everything up to contract award including packaging of work prequalification criteria. They will also conduct post contract performance reviews.
The SCMTs will not 'necessarily check on individual schemes', according to Matthews.
Instead they will look at things like health and safety performance of a contractor or how a contractor manages its own supply chain. They will also agree key performance indicators with contractors.
'There will be more emphasis on performance rather than individual contract management, although there will be still be hard data to measure contractors, such as accident levels and time performance, ' says Matthews.
The industry response is positive. 'The Agency's reorganisation is beginning to bear fruit and we feel more comfortable at the present time than we have for quite a while, ' says Turner.
The Agency has been praised in other quarters over the past year as it has got on with meeting targets in the 10 year plan while the rail sector has floundered.
Most recently it was singled out for praise in the Commons transport select committee report that was otherwise highly critical of progress being made on the 10 year transport plan (NCE 30 May).
Of the 100 smaller safety and congestion busting schemes on the network, or 'early action schemes', the Agency has already completed 42 safety schemes and 29 congestion schemes. Matthews estimates that innovations such as the use of framework contracts on these schemes has already saved an estimated six to 10 months.
More around the corner
The Highways Agency's roads programme is expected to be greatly enlarged over the next few months.
'We will be getting decisions from ministers on some of the very big multi-modal studies such as widening of the M6 (MidMan), and the M25 (Orbit), ' says Highways Agency chief executive Tim Matthews.
'We will be crystallising our own plans for delivery.
The government's Comprehensive Spending Review will hopefully help us chart a clear way forward for the next three years and give greater certainty in terms of how we move ahead. There is going to be a substantial upping of the pace of delivery of the major schemes.'
The Agency's Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI) has already increased from 36 schemes two years ago to 56 today. It is expected to be swelled further with a glut of big road projects from the multi-modal studies. Widening and bypass proposals will emerge from the studies only after public transport alternatives have been considered first.
The industry needs much convincing that road schemes will come through and be completed to schedule after delays to the multi-modal studies.
'We are sceptical about the pace of the programme, ' says Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief economist Jim Turner. 'After the delays we will have to go through the statutory process very quickly.
We wouldn't want to discourage the Agency from being confident but we are yet to be convinced.'
Matthews claims that when final results of the studies have come through, decisions from ministers have come very quickly. He points to the recent addition of three schemes on the A1 north of the M62 between Wetherby and Scotch Corner to the Agency's TPI. No sooner had the minister recommended the results of the A1 study be taken forward, than the schemes were added to the programme, he says.
'What we will see next year is the pace of new schemes building up quickly as multimodal studies come to fruition and ministers make decisions on those.'
He does acknowledge the industry's frustration at delays but points to the 'phenomenally complicated' multi-modal studies and various examples where further work has had to be carried out before final recommendations can be made. The widening of the A14 from Cambridge to Huntingdon for example, recommended to ministers earlier this year, has yet to be added to the TPI because further work is needed on environmental impacts.
Matthews claims the Agency has improved the situation by working with transport minister John Spellar to highlight schemes likely to emerge from the studies and carry out advanced work that will save time later when, and if, the schemes come into the TPI.
This is happening on the M25 where ministers are unlikely to approve a widening programme until the autumn. There, consultant Hyder is carrying out work on the Agency's behalf, assessing the capacity of junctions on the orbital route and considering how many extra lanes of traffic on the M25 those junctions could take.
INFOPLUS www. nceplus.co.uk/magazine/ transport