Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160- 179)



  160. I am a bit worried that you are doing things before the statutory process. Presumably you are not short-circuiting tendering processes and selecting contractors without going out to tender?
  (Mr Matthews) No, we are not doing anything which infringes proper procurement law and procurement practice. We are for both small- and medium-sized construction and consultancy advice, engineering and design advice, increasingly using what are known as framework contracts, in other words you contract with a range of organisations who have a range of skills and then you call them off to do a scheme rather than contract scheme by scheme. That of itself can take considerable time out of the process. We are clear in appointing contractors ahead of statutory processes and decisions that they are there to help us develop a scheme and help us take schemes through the appropriate statutory process.


  161. I am not quite clear what sort of safeguards you are offering these contractors in terms of long-term commitment?
  (Mr Matthews) It varies according to the scale and size of the scheme. We have to pay a contractor if it turns out they have been engaged in abortive work and a scheme falls. The judgement we and ministers have taken is that the advantages in terms of saving and cost benefit for the scheme overall make it worth taking what in most schemes would be a fairly marginal risk.

  162. The department told us that the bulk of capacity expansion for all these studies is going to come in the last three years of the ten-year plan, but if it takes seven years to build, how can all of this happen by the time you expect?
  (Mr Matthews) Not all of the schemes coming out of the multi-modal studies will be delivered within the ten years.

  163. No, I understand that. If the bulk of them, which I take to mean the majority of the schemes, are in the last three years and if you are already quoting seven years to us, how are we going to get all of these? If they are not built before 2010, how can you claim to meet the congestion targets?
  (Mr Matthews) A large number, not the bulk as you have said but a considerable number, will be delivered much earlier in the period. What we have to do—and it goes back to the earlier question—is ensure when we get those decisions that we have the right structure and framework in place with the industry that they can deliver it together with us. We do not build roads. It is the private sector.

  164. No, you are the person who commissions the work.
  (Mr Matthews) Yes; that is right. Our view now, given the schemes which are on the table, is that if we get decisions on those schemes then we have a procurement process in place, subject obviously to planning inquiries taking longer than anticipated, which means we have a very good chance of delivering all of the schemes which meet our targets within that ten-year period.

  165. You do that by giving undertakings to firms that you will underwrite their costs even if they are not used.
  (Mr Matthews) We will give limited undertakings that we will pay them for the work they do, but there is an important trade-off between the risk of that cost and the ability to get on and deliver those schemes, to deliver them more cost effectively and more efficiently, but also to deliver them more quickly.

  166. Does that not rather limit the numbers who can come in? Are you not getting yourself into a situation where you appear to be developing contractual obligations to some firms and not to others?
  (Mr Matthews) No and we have been very careful in our procurement strategy to ensure that we can package works in a way which supports small- and medium-sized construction companies for regional and smaller projects, but the fact is that very large road and road infrastructure schemes are going to be within the capability of a relatively small and defined number of contractors.

  167. If there is a limited number of people capable of carrying out these big schemes, why are you giving them extra protection because they are the only people who could possibly do the schemes anyway.
  (Mr Matthews) The aim is not to give them additional protection; that is not what we are doing. We are involving them at an early stage so we get the benefit of their input through the design process and the whole of the supply team, as has generally been recommended in the construction industry, is assembled as early as possible in the process rather than very late in the day. It is not an issue of protecting the industry, it is getting a better quality and a better cost of product for us.

  168. Is the advantage not eroded by the time it takes to get the whole scheme up and going?
  (Mr Matthews) No; precisely not. The aim is, and we are getting some examples of this already where we have appointed contractors early, that that of itself can help accelerate the whole design process. It is early days and we are not through schemes where we have used all these new contractual processes. It is an important contributor to shortening the time not lengthening it.

Mr Campbell

  169. Most lay people have a very straightforward view as to what the primary reason would be behind most motorway congestion. I am wondering what your view is.
  (Mr Matthews) We commissioned some research from the TRL a couple of years ago which looked on our network at the causes of congestion and that is the most secure evidence base we have. They came up with the conclusion that about 65 per cent of congestion was related to sheer volume of traffic, in other words, volume and capacity, and about 25 per cent related to incidents and accidents and that the balance of 10 per cent was caused by road works, maintenance, upgrading, new development. It is that kind of balance. I think you would find quite different figures in an urban area. We are talking principally about the inter-urban network. Our strategy therefore is very much aimed at tackling all of those three sets of problems, rather than assuming that all of the problem is the capacity and volume.

  170. Would it not be safe to assume that if two thirds or 65 per cent was down to volume, the bulk of that would be at peak times, morning and evening?
  (Mr Matthews) There is good empirical evidence to support that, although certainly on some parts of our network that peak time is beginning to spread.

  171. Accepting that, would that not lead you on logically to look at some form of charging in terms of trying to spread the load throughout the day, especially on very, very heavily used routes at the peak times?
  (Mr Matthews) It has certainly been one of the arguments advanced that road user charging would have more impact in terms of time of travel than volume of travel. Ministers have made their view clear on where they stand on road user charging and while they are interested in listening and understanding that debate, that is not something they wish to take forward within the ambit of these studies and these decisions.

  172. Is there a view within the agency that simply building more roads and widening existing roads is not the answer?
  (Mr Matthews) We have to operate within the policy context set by ministers and therefore we are focusing on how we tackle congestion without bringing in road user charging. What we are looking at is a mixture and a package of schemes, partly coming through from the multi-modal studies, which may involve significant widening of capacity. Also, increasingly, we are looking at how we manage the capacity on that network more effectively. To use the example you quoted, one of the possibilities we are looking at, is whether we could manage that peak demand better by bringing the hard shoulder into operation for those peak periods. There are obviously safety and driver behaviour concerns and the fit-for-purposeness of the hard shoulder. If we can do that safely, that might be a better and more logical answer to a particular stretch of road than just adding capacity.

  173. What do you do when the hard shoulder clogs up?
  (Mr Matthews) One of the things we clearly have to look at is what provision we would need to make for safety and what we might call safe havens if people need to come off the road for the normal traditional use of the hard shoulder. More generally, this is one part of a package. If it were not the total answer then we and ministers would need to look at it in terms of whether it needs additional capacity, whether there are other ways on that stretch of the network, particularly through things like targeted improvement in junctions and junction layouts, which in themselves could ease flow, using in a more widespread way things like variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic as we have on the western section of the M25 and access control through ramp metering. There is a variety of measures which we can take which are not just about adding capacity, they are thinking about managing the use of the network more actively.


  174. Having ruled out, however, one of the most obvious means of management which is payment.
  (Mr Matthews) Ministers have made their position clear.

  Chairman: I am glad you think that.

Tom Brake

  175. On the question of using the hard shoulder, would you make public results of safety assessments which you carry out, because clearly there are enormous safety issues around making a section of hard shoulder available for use by cars and also the impact it will have elsewhere; when drivers become aware of a particular location then the temptation will be everywhere in the country. Already the hard shoulder is abused at times of heavy congestion and that will just exacerbate it.
  (Mr Matthews) Yes, but we would not limit the public involvement or consultation to the safety study. It is very important that we engage the road user organisations, the freight organisations.

  Chairman: It might be helpful if you asked the accident and emergency services as well. They might have a view.

Clive Efford.

  176. In the packages you talked about every example you used was actually about roads. When I think about packages, I think about other forms of transport as well which might be the solution to the problem. How do you ensure that your trunk road programme is introduced at the same time as other improvements such as buses or other modes of transport, rail transport networks?
  (Ms Chipping) Within the Highways Agency we have been doing a lot of work with colleagues out in the regions in the course of the multi-modal studies, both in sitting on the steering groups and advising on the particular schemes as they have been developed, indeed we shall continue to have that contact both with colleagues in the regions and with other agencies once we are tasked with delivering the packages. Some of the multi-modal packages have fairly close links with public transport provision, the Cambridge to Huntingdon study for example. We have a clear remit to work with other agencies, particularly in that case with the local authority in terms of delivering the package. Equally it is the case that not all elements of the multi-modal package will be able to be delivered over the same timescale. It is very much for us to be aware of what is going on in other areas, the risks involved around delivering their elements of the package and the inter-dependency of our element of the package with those. Following up your point about elements which are not simply to do with the provision of roads, in terms of managing the demand on our network, we would work with local authorities and others who could influence the pattern of behaviour for drivers and maybe encourage businesses to spread their working times, encourage more home working, so we can work with other bodies to try to have an influence on the demand for our network.

  177. Should the most important public transport measures be put in place before any road programmes are started?
  (Ms Chipping) I would suggest that if you waited for any single element of the package, whether it be road public transport or rail, you would be in danger of not delivering the multi-modal package which ministers envisage when they set up the studies and when they made recommendations. I would hope that we can work closely with local authorities, and others implementing the public transport elements, so that as closely as possible we can tie the two together and deliver for the public what they want, which is an integrated system of public transport and roads at the same time. It is not straightforward and progressing one element at a time sequentially would not, I suggest, answer the problem.

  178. Do I take it from your answer that you are saying that where there is a whole package in place which needs to be implemented as part of one of the schemes, you would commit yourself to implementing your element of that in its entirety, that you would not suddenly change your priorities half way along the road?
  (Ms Chipping) It is clearly a very complex area to try to bring all this together. This is one of the real strengths of the multi-modal approach in terms of the analysis but difficult in terms of delivery. What we shall be doing is looking at each stage of the process. In terms of the initial analysis which has been done it is possible to look at the impact of the road scheme, the impact on the capacity to be provided by the road scheme alongside the public transport scheme and assess from the point of view of cost benefit the impact on the environment and other things, whether each element does stand up in its own right. In most cases the road scheme would do, which is perhaps different from some of the other elements; it would still be worthwhile but you would not get the full advantage of the whole package until you had implemented the other elements as well. What we shall be doing at each stage of the process, study stage, public inquiry stage, is looking at the whole package, looking at the risks and probability around the other elements of the package being delivered and assessing whether there is any need for us to adapt our scheme accordingly.

  179. Do you consider the wider impact of those schemes, such as the effect on urban congestion?
  (Ms Chipping) We have to look on a scheme by scheme basis. Some of the multi-modal studies are clearly going to have a bigger impact on congestion in urban areas than others. For those dealing with stretches of motorways, such as the M6 from Birmingham up to Manchester there is probably not likely to be such a big impact in terms of the influence we can have on urban travel patterns and the impact they will have on our network. For some of the studies this could be quite a big element and we shall certainly be looking out for that.

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