Transforming the Road Network
Author: Tony Scutt, Customer Director in Highways
The decision by the UK government to set up the National Infrastructure Commission in October of last year is a strong signal that the country is taking a longer-term view in terms of improving nationally significant infrastructure while at the same time providing greater certainty for those of us involved in making those improvements happen.
This is a very serious commitment. Take roads. The government’s ambitious £15 billion Road Investment Strategy (RIS) is now up and running for the next five years, while research is already being done for the second phase post 2020.1
So I was pleased to be asked to attend a recent CBI roundtable on upgrading the UK’s road network with the transport minister Andrew Jones MP as guest of honour. While I obviously can’t recount particular discussions, what I can do is look at some of the key issues involved in improving the ability of getting people from A to B more quickly, more efficiently and more sustainably to help boost the country’s competitiveness.
Who runs the roads
First, it will probably be helpful to give a brief description of the governance structure when it comes to the road network. Highways England is the new government company formed last year from the previous organisation and which operates, maintains and improves England’s motorways and major A roads. Although these account for only about 2% of the road network, they handle almost half of the traffic volume. The government forecasts suggest increases of anywhere between 32% and 123% by 2030 on the strategic road network in England.2
The other three main players are the local authorities, the Welsh government and Transport for London.
In my role as customer director I have to look carefully at what drives each different agency but also, importantly, find what’s similar to share best practice and cross-fertilise useful lessons.
Gearing up to meet demand
One of the big challenges we face is ensuring we have the required resources to meet what will be substantial demands. This is particularly the case with skills. If, for example, you know you need a certain amount of materials such as aggregates for the roads over the next four -to-five years, you can start investing in quarries to build up enough stock. Or if you are going to need lorries to deliver that aggregate, you can place your orders now for four years’ time.
Those of us offering more of a service face a different concern. We have to ensure that we have the right people with the right skills for the right jobs. But if we hire them now, we have to have the work to train them on in order to be ready when the demand is there.
It is a delicate balancing act between dealing with the pressures of today and meeting the needs of tomorrow. We have to find the way to manage that transition. What helps is the government’s commitment to the necessary funding over a period of years.
As well as sufficient resources, another discussion centres around how we can deliver improvements to the road network through technology. Not technology for its own sake, but using it intelligently to create more capacity as economically as possible. This can encompass anything from our smart motorways programme to a range of innovative techniques to cut costs and minimise disruption to the road users.
As an industry we indeed face challenges as we gear up to the transformation of our road network. The good news is that those involved in overseeing the investment are listening to our concerns and encouraging us in our search for solutions.
What more do you think industry could be doing to successfully address the skills challenge? Let us know your thoughts.