There is a wind, or perhaps a breeze, of change swirling around the offices, conferences and social forums of those involved with UK Roads. There is much optimistic talk of reforming, transformation, and revolution. A storm is brewing.

Historically, road maintenance and repair have been the first victims of short-term financial planning, resulting in uncertainty, delays and cost-overruns. To correct this legacy of historic under-investment the Government has confirmed that funding will be tripled to 24bn over the next 8 years. With such long-term ambitions, the UK’s road building community must prepare for a massive increase in work .

The Government is also committing a raft of reforms that have the potential to transform the nation’s strategic road network and the way it is managed. Key elements of this Roads Reform are:

  • legislating to secure long-term funding certainty,
  • delivering a huge programme of investment in our road infrastructure,
  • transforming the Highways Agency into a legally separate company, and
  • introducing a roads investment strategy – backed by legislation.

The potential impact of these long awaited reforms may be greatly amplified by what futurist pundits are describing as the ‘perfect storm’ of six technology innovations – mobile devices, social media, cameras, sensors, the cloud and what is call emergent knowledge. This could provide a wonderful opportunity to “reimagine” the near and far future on the UK’s roads.

In his key note speech to the UK Roads Conference 2014, Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for Transport, put the potential of “Better Technology” at the top of his list of challenges for the roads community, saying: 

“Looking further ahead, intelligent transport systems - like the driverless cars being pioneered in Oxford and California, where vehicles and infrastructure communicate automatically - have the potential to cut congestion, cut emissions and improve safety.

We are changing that and looking at how technology can drive and transform the everyday driving experience. The road investment strategy won’t have all the answers. But it will raise our ambitions and put us on a path that sees technology playing its full role in a transformation of the strategic road network.”

In outlining his vision and challenges for the transformation of the Highways Agency (HA) into a legally separate company, CEO Graham Dalton further detailed the need for Better Technology to support operation, user information and asset management.  With a focus on fully informed decision making and simplified administrative processes the aim is to ensure that money goes where it is needed, ‘in the ground’. It is expected that working more efficiently will deliver savings of £2.6bn over 10 years.

Graham Dalton also acknowledged that there was still much work to get the HA ready, not least because of the need to change long established cultures.

So here is the challenge for those in the HA’s supply chain network; are we in a fit shape to support the HA during its time of reform, and can we gear up to provide the level of specialist resource need to support the increase in projects over the next decade and beyond?

Both the Government and the HA believe that the commitment to long term funding and flexibility for the reformed HA means suppliers can be confident to invest in equipment and skills.  

So whilst there will be confidence to invest in equipment and skills, many companies will also need to reflect the HA’s investment in tackling cultural changes within their own organisations. The supply chain network needs to be in the right shape and condition to ride out the perfect storm of massive Government investment, major reforms at the HA and the potential for technology to transform the way the UK Road network is used and managed in the future.

With so many elements having the potential for radical change, it may seem impossible to formulate an exact view what the future might look like – and any such attempts will probably prove to be wasteful. Success will more likely be found in ensuring that our organisations maintain an ability to proactively identify and review opportunities, and ensure that they are capable of adapting in an agile way to incorporate changes into the heart of our businesses. This for many may be harder than it first sounds. Adopting new ways of working can involve taking risk and incurring extra costs in the short-term, factors which seldom seem acceptable for many board rooms and shareholders.

Government and the HA are setting a good leading example with their agenda for transformation and reform and we in the UK Roads supply chain community are both compelled and willing to follow their lead.

Causeway’s Highways & Infrastructure Maintenance software suite is continually evolving to anticipate changing requirements and ensure customers have the technological assets available that will enable them to prosper in this rapidly evolving sector of the market.

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