The UK’s strategic road network is one of its most valuable national assets, key to our economic growth. Four million people use Highways England’s strategic road network each day, and this is forecast to grow by over 40% by 2040.
Just as an effective roads network is core to the country’s economic resilience, so this in turn must be underpinned by a skilled workforce. At Balfour Beatty, our expert teams have helped to deliver major strategic highways projects such the M4/M5 smart motorway upgrade, the A3 Hindhead Tunnel and the A21 upgrade scheme between Tonbridge and Pembury.
However, there is a widening disconnect between the number of skilled workers retiring and the number of young people entering the profession. It is imperative that we work to close the skills gap if we are to ensure the workforce required to efficiently build and maintain our roads in the long term.
The growth of initiatives like The 5% Club, an employer-led organisation whose members commit to achieving 5% of their workforce being in ‘earn and learn’ positions, is an encouraging step in the right direction. Apprenticeships are a vital route into work and we should build on the number of entry-level positions we offer, as well as attractive career progression opportunities.
Coupled with a skilled workforce, the development of innovative construction practices is essential to delivering the country’s major pipeline of forthcoming highways projects: Highways England is bringing forward record investment in roads through its £8.7 billion Regional Development Partnership framework for road improvements between 2018-2024, and a £6 billion 10-year Smart Motorways Programme.
We must modernise our construction methods to meet the challenge of delivering these essential investments in our highways. In Balfour Beatty’s recent paper entitled ‘Customer Driven: Delivering roads for the future’ we highlight the particular need for greater off-site manufacturing as one such solution.
The increased use of technology in road construction such as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) is crucial to reducing on-site works. DfMA can reduce build time by 20-60% by allowing work on two or more phases of a highway scheme to take place simultaneously: while one part of the scheme is being completed onsite, the elements needed for the next phase can be constructed elsewhere. The highways industry needs to adapt the way it operates to see fewer but safer roadworks and shorter road closures across the board. This will not only increase the wellbeing of operatives undertaking roadworks, but also will improve customer experience while they are being delivered.
We recently put this into practice on the A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon improvement scheme, which is being delivered by Balfour Beatty, Skanska and Costain, where two 1,000 tonne bridges were constructed off-site and installed using a remote-controlled modular transporter. These forward-looking ways of delivering highways services ultimately allow us to move away from the traditional model of workers operating on the side of the road, thereby increasing safety for the workforce whilst reducing costs, reducing delivery time and reducing disruption to the general public.
A safe and suitable strategic road network is vital to connecting communities, delivering goods and keeping people moving up and down the country. As an industry we must invest in the resources required to deliver the significant pipeline of major highways schemes that are essential to shaping our modern infrastructure.
Phil Clifton, Managing Director of Balfour Beatty’s Highways business, is speaking on the Future of Mobility in the Main Theatre at 15.15 on 8 November
Phil Clifton – Managing Director of Balfour Beatty’s Highways business