Improving the future of the here and now


The incoming president of the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (TAG), John Lamb, tells Highways about his plans for the organisation and how it hopes to lead the sector through the storms of disruption on the horizon.

What are your main priorities for TAG during your time as president?

TAG is a national body that provides a truly national forum for professionals from LoTAG in London to TAGNI in Northern Ireland. TAG’s membership diversity is what provides a rich and authoritative platform on which to speak. I am honoured to be this year’s president in a body that has roots going back over 100 years.

I want to celebrate the practical application of technology to solve the technical challenges we now face. Equally, TAG does great work shaping policy through responding to consultations with technically sound advice and practical application of new technologies and approaches into new evolving processes and standards.

I also want to continue supporting the development of a resilience toolkit that provides resources and support for enabling new 24/7 on-demand services, and response efforts to disruptions. In time of crunch we must not be 153 councils, but act as one.

As practitioners active across highways, transportation, planning, waste, streetscene, flood and coastal erosion, the range of experts is mind numbing. My year as president will draw from these specialisms in a way that creates a clear and compelling focus on how we must serve our communities now and into the future. And what a future there is – short and longer-term.

The lead up to Brexit in March 2019 will consume ever increasing amounts of parliamentary time and ministerial focus. Meanwhile all eyes need to be focused on the 2019 Spending Review.

Let’s think about the ‘T’ in Technical and how it implies a set of skills, a craft, an art, a technique that has been learnt and is being applied. The innovation of decades past has created the physical assets that made Britain great and around which our society thrives. Equally though, we see radical change that defies all logic and pace that is ever quicker.

We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution and we need to understand how to embrace the opportunities being presented. That said, I think the next few years should be less about driverless cars and instead about universally applying new technology, systems and approaches to better serve customers and communities.

What are the key concerns of members at the moment?

TAG has a strong technical coverage but there are imbalances in regional coverage. For instance, Northern Ireland and London are very strong and we strong in mets and the North East and most unitaries. However, elsewhere there is much less activity and this is something we want to work on.

As I mentioned, Brexit is limiting the bandwidth of parliamentary and ministerial time for other matters and this coupled with an uncertainty about future funding and a fear of technological change.

It remains a concern that influencing policy makers nationally and locally is slow going. TAG provides a safe space to think things through and is a platform for conveying the need and nature for change.

On finances, the debate is around how we might move beyond the same old narrative of asking for more money to fix things that never seem to ever be fixed. Instead we must divert funding from the £80bn toxic cocktail of obesity, declining air quality and growing congestion that is affecting UK productivity.

What is the key benefit of becoming a TAG member?

TAG serves all levels of local government, covering the whole range of council technical services. We are immediately relevant across team leaders, heads of service and directors. It is not just about what TAG can do for you but equally about how you can help shape future policy direction. TAG ensures you are either at the table of change or only one call away from the most senior industry professionals leading that change.

TAG continues to be at the forefront of establishing and disseminating best practice and works closely with other bodies to ensure opportunities are maximised. To achieve these aims, TAG works through its network of regions, technical committees, topic groups and individual contacts to provide a hugely diverse and representative network of professional officers.

There was some talk awhile ago of TAG working more closely with other professional bodies. Has that died away now or do you intend to push that forward?

We already work closely with the Local Government Association on preparing responses to Government consultations. Equally, we work with professional bodies including the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, reflecting the number of senior professionals who are also members of our trade bodies. Our meetings are already open to members of ADEPT.

Are we ready to make a shift from the client-contractor model of delivery and procurement to something of a more collaborative enterprise team model, and is it what the sector needs?

I think the focus should be on outcomes and solid performance data and hard evidence. I genuinely believe that supply chain partners have a massive role to play in supporting delivery and rolling out innovation. Sadly though, the biggest shift needed is not in supply chain arrangement but through asset management financing:

  • For the DfT and City Treasurers to abolish Cap Ex & Rev Ex in favour of ‘TotEx’
  • To bring forward that ten-year funding pipeline and target over and spend it over 26-48 months. There is a marginal cost of capital but spend now to save later is a fact.
  • To use off the shelf systems and proven approaches to data management (Gaist, Alloy etc) to provide transparent a way for business case evaluation and audit.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I can already sense the weight that sits on any trade body president. I do feel that to achieve the best for the sector we need focus on what is going to have the most impact. I have reached out to other trade bodies to help share the burden and genuinely want to work across the sector to build a coalition to ensure the Spending Review 2019 is a genuine opportunity to help the DfT and Treasury understand the way in which we can create a fantastic legacy.

This must be about creating something that is relevant to the public in a way that they probably think we are already doing. For instance, by creating 5G corridors that smooth traffic flows before they get to traffic signals or predictive systems that recognise traffic conditions developing and can act to avert problems. Just as our forebears built canals, toll roads and motorways it would be never wrong to upgrade the corridors at the heart of our public realm to have data and traffic flow in new ways.

Equally I need to see how we fix what we have. I have personally attended too many ribbon cutting for roads that are now full and we must instead build new roads only at local schemes to unlock houses and increase local GVA – not save a few minutes here and there.

The coming together of four select committees holds out hope of a new approach on air quality – but don’t hold your breath as the World Health Organisation states that there is no safe level of PM10 and PM2.5.


The TAG President's Conference 2018 takes place on 22 May at the Hallam Conference Centre, 44 Hallam Street, London W1W 6JJ. For more information and to book click here.

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