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Roads bonanza requires investment in staff and skills - now!

Roads investment is set to go stratospheric but the work has to be delivered more efficiently, differently and without killing plans at birth with price inflation says Department for Transport strategic roads director John Dowie.

The Tube’s had it, rail’s had it and now, finally, after decades of short rations, roads in England and Wales are promised the huge injection of investment cash from central government that they need as the nation’s main economic artery in terms of transport and trade.

Legislation committing the current and future governments to the programme is expected this year, according to Department for Transport strategic roads director John Dowie.  This will sit alongside transformation of the Highways Agency into an arms length company with freedom to decide how to plan the work in the most cost efficient way within the framework of a statutory Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) period.

“Nothing is likely to frustrate this opportunity more than the inevitable cost pressure price increases that would result if the sector tried to deliver the programme with existing resources and traditional ways of working.”

 In the 2013 spending round Treasury guaranteed £16.8bn between 2014 and 2021 to enhance and renew the strategic road network to help meet the big challenge of rising traffic demand – estimated by Department of Transport as 46% by 2040, almost a quarter of all travel time could be stuck in traffic. To put the cash in context, over the last few years annual spend has been between £1bn and £1.5bn. As the investment proposed ramps up that will increase by 2020/1 to close on £4bn a year.

“Around three years from now in particular there will be a dramatic step change in the amount of work the UK’s roads industry will be required to deliver,” Dowie said.  A doubling of investment is a nice problem to have, “but how that investment is going to be managed and delivered in a controlled, non gold rush way needs to be thought about now."

He added: “Nothing is likely to frustrate this opportunity more than the inevitable cost pressure price increases that would result if the sector tried to deliver the programme with existing resources and traditional ways of working."

Out of control price rises effectively scuppered John Prescott’s 10 year transport plan that would have benefitted roads in the 1990s and industry can’t let that happen again, Dowie said. Equally Government can’t have another “Roads for Prosperity” moment when a fanfare of highway promises in the late 1980s ran out of puff.

Two decisions by Government will this time see it stick to the spending plan, Dowie said. “Treasury has agreed to fully fund the forward programme and the Highways Agency is being transformed into an arms length company giving it the freedom and flexibility to better deliver that programme.” Funding and HA transformation are going to be underpinned by legislation he said pointing out: “We hope the legislation will be in place this year."

Industry too has its part to play. The sector needs to get together to work out its skills strategy collaboratively as well as as individual businesses, he stressed. “There is a huge communications challenge here. People have to understand the agenda, believe in the work and recognise they need to change and plan for it.”

Response from the industry to the proposed changes to the highways funding structure was positive.

"Industry has been clamouring for long-term funding commitments from government for decades, so the announcement of this and an end to the uncertainty of the previous stop-start approach is welcome," said Association for Consultancy & Engineering chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin.

"The priority for all concerned now should be to get the legislation establishing the Highways Agency as a 'Go-Co' passed so the new organisation can begin working quickly with industry to develop and deliver the project pipeline," he added. "This will ensure the UK has the road network it needs and allow the economy to prosper as access to new jobs, skills, markets and wealth is created."

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email jackie.whitelaw@infrastructure-intelligence.com.