REVEALED: Highways sector's COVID-19 recovery plans

Dominic Browne

The Government and the Highways Sector Council (HSC) have formulated the beginnings of an exit strategy and recovery plan to boost the sector both now and as it emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, Highways can reveal.

The first building block to the plan has been dubbed 'Project SafeStart', which will see the release of highways-specific safe operating guidance - expected tomorrow - and advice on how to operate at business as usual, or as close to it as possible, throughout the COVID-19 lockdown and crisis period.

The Project SafeStart plans are also due to be released publicly shortly.

There is also an embryonic plan for the post Covid-19 recovery. The Department for Transport (DfT) asked the HSC to draw up the plans to 'accelerate' major maintenance and shovel-ready essential highway projects on all local authority highway networks. 

HSC has already outlined some of the actions and ideas that could help 'accelerate recovery' including speeding up planning, procurement and delivery processes.

The HSC has identified three levels of work and aims to help the highways sector not just bounce back, but take advantage of the situation, with the potential for authorities to re-shape project delivery and the use of the network for years to come.

The plans have identified ‘Emergency/Critical Work’ based around Tier One contractors, ‘Key/Urgent Work’ based around Tier Two and ‘Planned Work’ for Tier Three companies.

The HSC includes Highways England, major contractors and professional bodies such as the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, and is supported by council directors' body ADEPT.

Chair of the ADEPT engineering board, Mark Stevens, who also sits on the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG), which brings together national and local government for roads strategy and policy talks, outlined the plans to international colleagues with the backing of the DfT.

He revealed that Project SafeStart sets out a broad framework by which the highway sector can either stay as close to business as usual as possible, or, where organisations have scaled back, begin recovering some of the ground lost.

'Project SafeStart is about ensuring that the preparation and delivery of programmes that are preventative, planned and restorative work continues to an enhanced scale where possible to capitalise on a local road network that has significantly reduced traffic volume,' he said.

The scheme is part of HSC's COVID-19 reaction work, which also includes the creation of the ‘COVID-19 Highways Safe Operating Procedures’ guide to support safe site operation, including mobile and small scale sites associated with road maintenance and repair works, depot cleaning guidance, isolation directions, hand washing protocols, canteen and eating facilities management.

Highways understands the Construction Leadership Council's operational guidance was seen as too generic and it was felt the highways sector needed to develop its own guidelines for its specific issues. 

While the post COVID-19 recovery plans are still at a formative stage, they are said to reflect a request from the DfT that HSC map out 'what a recovery looks like and how it can be best achieved'.

A short, medium and long term plan

Mr Stevens told Highways that the advice was to take advantage of the empty roads as much as possible in the short-term to medium-term, seen as up until June and on to February 2021. 

Following that there was the potential to reshape the nature of network and how we use it for years to come.

Mr Stevens said that 'the normal working landscape that we have been used to has to change' adding that 'ironically the scope exists for the current COVID 19 crisis to act as a catalyst for the positive change that the highways sector council originally sought to establish'.

He added: 'The first phase of recovery must be to seize the opportunity of a quiet network. In simple terms, this means the UK government confirming its funding allocations for this year, clients accelerating their works programmes, contractors and their supply chains re-mobilising; combined with asphalt and concrete plants reopening, materials suppliers reopening their doors and waste management once again handling recyclable and non-recyclable waste.

'But the second phase is crucial too; Rethinking how our local road network is used and managed and that includes increased use of sustainable travel, how goods and services can be procured differently, how projects, be they shovel ready or otherwise, can move more swiftly through procurement to actual delivery, how contractual payments at all levels can be accelerated and exploring what other constraints can be relaxed to facilitate all of this.'

Following similar comments by ministers to the Transport Select Committee, Mr Stevens also said that local authorities are looking at reclaiming 'some of the existing road space away from road vehicles and giving it to those sustainable travel modes'.

'Part of the thinking is that action needs to take place fairly quickly and that is happening in local authorities at the moment. There are some really strong lessons to be learned here from an environmental and sustainable travel perspective and I think that’s what we have to capitalise on.' 

The road to recovery – now and post-COVID-19

Project SafeStart begins the recovery process for highways through consideration of issues such as:

  • Rigorous programming and planning (no restricted hours)
  • Good traffic/public management (e.g. “sterile” perimeter for “closed” work sites)
  • Tier 1 (critical) and Tier 2 (essential) works being delivered as minimum standard practice
  • Full road and footway closures for Tier 3 works wherever possible
  • Intensifying media support (#HighwaysHeroes)
  • Greater essential worker status recognition

Mitigation Actions

  • Consistent and proactive implementation of PPN01/20 (urgent procurement) and PPN02/20 (supplier payment and cashflow)
  • Accelerate preparation of maintenance programmes
  • Maintain momentum on scheme preparation and design and the planning of future schemes
  • Confirm funding allocations and bring forward future announcements
  • Unlock planning/consultation constraints
  • Stimulate discussion on what our transport systems will need to be post COVID-19
  • Clear and positive messaging

Accelerating Recovery

  • Extend/flex funding milestones
  • Extend road space availability and permitted working hours
  • Prime supply chain to re-mobilise
  • Support self-employed
  • Expedite contract execution
  • Extend PPN02/20 to support cash flow through supply chain
  • Unlock planning and other approvals via digital tools and innovation
  • Extend certain ISO and other accreditations
  • Skills – relax requirements for mandatory (non-safety impact) tickets
  • Relax TTROs


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