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Fresh thinking and lastest technology must drive efficiency, says new HA chair

Colin Matthew, chairman, Highways Agency

Embracing new technologies and new asset management ideas will be key to driving down the cost of maintaining the nation’s strategic highways and to creating a sustainable network capable of meeting the increasing demands of drivers, according to Colin Matthews the new chairman of the Highways Agency. 

“This is not a business as usual static environment,” he said. “There are big challenges and motor manufacturers and others will be working on technologies that will increase the efficiency and we need to make sure that we can exploit those." 

He added: “It is a fantastic opportunity with some really serious investment behind it to take Britain’s roads on a journey,” adding that he anticipated that in five years’ time more ideas would be needed to improve capacity with less money and less carbon.

“Who knows where the technology will go? Is it going to be in the car, in gantries or in the road - I don’t know,” he said. “But we need to make sure that we are up with the best ideas that are developing around how to make roads more efficient and more carbon efficient as well and that will involve the ability to exchange information between roads and cars.”

“This is the first time we have done this so in subsequent years, of course, the routines mean that thing will improve. But what I can say is that I am sure that, even in its first year it will be a better proposition than looking it afresh each year." Colin Matthews.

Colin Matthews took over as the new chairman of the Highways Agency last week having run Heathrow Airport and before that operator BAA for the last six years. He joins at a critical moment as the organisation reshapes from government agency to a new Strategic Highways Company with £24bn to spend to 2021. 

In his first interview since assuming the role, Matthews said that his focus in the short term was to drive efficiency into the new organisation as it morphs from the Agency so as to ensure that the government’s committed investment really underpinned an asset capable of driving the nation’s economy.

The Department of Transport outlined plans to convert the Highways Agency into a new government-owned Strategic Highways Company (SHC) in June when it published a suite of draft key documents detailing the key elements that will create “a cohesive and robust governance framework for the new company” 

Critically, under this arrangement the new company will be granted a five year budget built to deliver against a newly agreed Roads Investment Strategy (RIS) which must now be developed by the end of the year  to set out how the promised £24bn funding package will be spent. The new business will then deliver this strategy from April.

“This is the first time we have done this so in subsequent years, of course, the routines mean that things will improve,” he said. “But what I can say is that I am sure that, even in its first year it will be a better proposition than looking at it afresh each year."

He pointed out that, given the over-riding majority of the Agency’s spending was delivered through its supply chain, helping suppliers to drive their efficiency was crucial. 

A longer interview with Colin Matthews setting out his strategy and challenges for the future of the Highways Agency will be carried in the September issue of Infrastructure Intelligence on w/c 22 September. To subscribe click here.

“You are obviously going to get better value for money if you can negotiation with your suppliers over a predictable flow of work across a reasonable period of time,” he said. “Key will be a five year investment plan rather than funding that goes up and down under the week to week pressures that can beset government.

“You will see us focused on the best possible relationships with suppliers – commercially sharp with good tension but with good collaboration to ensure delivery,” he said.

Trunk roads and motorways face unprecedented challenge with traffic forecast to grow a whopping 46% by 2040. However Matthews pointed out that in the short term the strategy would not be about building new roads with the £24bn investment. 

“It is going to be about improving junctions and connections and bottlenecks and all of the things that I think frustrate drivers by improving them,” he explained. “You can’t do that overnight but progressively I hope that users will be able to say that the network is getting better.

“If there is a hold-up we must be able to tell them accurately what it is, what is being done to fix it and hopefully, how long it is going to take to clear. Certainly when I am driving those are the things that I want to know.” Colin Matthews.

Matthews rejected any notion that the structural changes at the Agency were a forerunner to full privatisation pointing out that it was “categorically not about that”. 

“No one has talked to me about ownership. All of the conversations have been about improvement and investment,” he said. 

Similarly he ruled out any move to drive road pricing and tolling 

“The government owns the roads and it is up to them to decide the policy and how to run it,” he said. “We will be looking to successive governments to be clear about that and as long as that is clear and stable it will put us in a good position to do a good job for the nation. Our job is to deliver.”

At Heathrow Matthews oversaw a radical improvement in customer satisfaction and he intends to continue this drive towards focusing on individual drivers as customers. An independent watchdog and monitor will be created to represent the interests of road users, and to monitor the efficiency and performance of the company.

“If there is a hold-up we must be able to tell them accurately what it is, what is being done to fix it and hopefully, how long it is going to take to clear. Certainly when I am driving those are the things that I want to know.”

 

An longer interview with Colin Matthews setting out his strategy and challenges for the future of the Highways Agency will be carried in the September issue of Infrastructure Intelligence on w/c 22 September. To subscribe click here www.infrastructure-intelligence.com/print-subscription