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Highways Agency: It's time to stand and deliver

For England’s strategic road network 2013 is a year of rapidly increasing capital investment, says Highways Agency boss Graham Dalton

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Jewel in the Autumn Statement crown: The upgrade of the A1 from Leeming Bar to Barton in North Yorkshire to a dual three-lane motorway

The coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010 set some tough goals for the Highways Agency. Some observers said our capital budgets had been unwisely slashed.

I took a different view - that maintenance and renewal of the existing asset is just as important as building totally new infrastructure, and that a government with limited funds should look to spend that money wisely in getting the best of the asset it has before building more.

Quite simply, if there is not enough money to do everything, then we must use it where it has most impact.

Since the autumn of 2010, we have made some really good progress, working hand in hand with a strong group of key contractors and consultants.

We have reduced the cost of road maintenance contracts by at least 20%, and have reduced the unit cost of our major projects by a similar amount.

There have been changes in house too - we have fewer staff than three years ago handling the same amount of work, and we have taken very significant cost out of running our Traffic Officer Service.

The focus has been on maintaining a consistent basic service to the millions of road users on our network every day, while demonstrating to our funder that we understand their priorities and will help them save money.

While we have tackled the underlying cost base and built our reputation for delivery, the government has taken an increasing interest in the role of the motorway and trunk road network, and has observed just how fundamental it is to the economy of much of the country and how investment in the network can deliver sustained growth in the national economy.

Chancellor George Osborne’s growth review in 2011, and then his Autumn Statement at the end of last year, saw a total of 10 new major capital schemes, an innovative £300M programme of (relatively) small schemes to tackle pinch points, and crucially a design programme to prepare a pipeline of schemes for future years. A total additional investment programme of more than £2bn for this agency to deliver - most of which will be delivered over the next two financial years.

I was at a function with some of the leading lights of the water sector a few weeks ago. They were bemoaning the stop/start nature of their five year funding cycle. I reflected that I have had a significant change to my budget in each of my five years in post, one a re-baselining and four of them significant increases.

It is not the optimum way to run major asset intensive business, but if you expect to have short notice budget changes, then you tailor your delivery mechanism accordingly and make it work.

So to 2013. For England’s strategic road network, it is a year of rapidly increasing capital investment. A combination of Early Contractor Involvement and a collaborative delivery hub means we can run fast to get major projects designed to a low target cost and on site.

Our approach to maintenance contracts means we can get smaller schemes designed and built in similarly quick order.

So we won’t be spending this year trudging through lengthy procurement cycles. Instead, we will be relying on a collaborative and efficient group of delivery partners to do just that. Deliver.

Graham Dalton is Highways Agency chief executive

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