Street works – getting it right

20/06/2019
Richard Hayes

Richard Hayes, chief executive of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), discusses its new training in street works inspections.

The increased profile, both in policy and financial terms, of highway maintenance, requires a corresponding increased emphasis on management and systems to support service delivery within the context and principles of a risk-based approach.

There is significant pressure, therefore, for utility companies to pay more for any damage they inflict on the highway asset. While this may reduce the effect on maintenance budgets, overall it could lead to higher utility bills.

The main effect of poor reinstatements is often sunken road conditions, but the hidden damage is done when water ingress through poor joints accelerates the damage to the sub strata through the freeze/thaw effect.

The former could be dealt with by extended guarantee periods, which have been suggested by Department for Transport (DfT). The consultation on these plans is now closed and publication of the DfT’s response is expected later this year. The latter is more difficult to prove and the damage caused is far greater.

Highway authorities are required to ensure that undertakers conducting street works in their area are complying with the legal obligations placed upon them. There is a national Code of Practice covering procedures for inspections, investigatory works and performance monitoring arrangements.

There are also situations in which the undertaker will be obliged to pay the highway authority a fee after they have conducted an inspection into street works, so it is critical that both parties understand what is expected.

Street works changes

Many of the recent changes in the way street works are undertaken have been designed to reduce disruption and the extension of permit schemes will ensure the public can have confidence that any temporary traffic situations are in place for the minimum of time, but less focus is being put on what is being put back and in what manner.

This is supported within recent reviews by the Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee (HAUC) (UK) and work done a few years ago by the the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP), where concerns were raised about the inspection and auditing of ongoing and completed street works and the competence of those carrying out the inspection and monitoring of works.

These concerns often start as local challenges and disputes that become unnecessarily escalated and have their root cause in the difference of interpretation of the relevant New Roads and Street Works Act (NRSWA) codes of practice. This type of disagreement is not uncommon and a way to drive consistency of interpretations is required to thereby engender a more effective focus on safety and compliance, ie getting it right first time.

Past training errors

The differing standards are due, in part, to the historical training given by the two different disciplines. Highway authorities have in the past employed inspectors who spent earlier parts of their careers as mason pavers or road operatives. The inspection role was one that a lot of this generation migrated into, after many years on the tools, often without any qualifications.

Utility contractors are more inclined to train to the legislative requirements and, in some cases, not all the operatives working on site may have the NRSWA operative qualification as a minimum. There are an increasing number of reinstatement and other failures of the highway infrastructure, many of which originate from poor statutory undertaker excavation and reinstatement works. This is partly due to a lack of training of operatives and supervisors.

Many years of reliance by industry on the current NRSWA qualification, as well as the lack of adequate and appropriate monitoring by highway authorities, has led to a gradual degradation of the practical skills of the utility and highway maintenance workforce. The NRSWA qualification for operatives and supervisors is assessment-based, with minimal training inputs required to reach the minimum assessment standard.

The IHE, through its management of the Highway Inspectors Board, has proposed a new training and assessment scheme for inspectors and auditors would help to ensure candidates can identify the actions that may be taken to address issues of non-compliance relating to reinstatements, safety measures, unreasonably prolonged occupation of the highway and permit conditions.

It would also ensure that candidates understand the procedures for measuring and managing the performance of undertakers and the financial arrangements for recovering the costs of inspections.

The training and assessment scheme would also be relevant to statutory undertakers, auditors, and private contractors undertaking street works, who are required to inspect their own works regularly, at all stages, including at the end of the reinstatement guarantee period.

The scheme would provide an understanding of local HAUC and local permit conditions, as well as the consequences if standards are not being met and what the required actions are to minimise any potential charges from the highway authority.

One of the main drivers behind the scheme is to provide a similar emphasis, not only in minimising disruption, but also in ensuring that the asset being affected is returned to its original condition without any deterioration being built into the reinstatement process. This forms part of ‘Getting It Right’, the IHEs main theme for 2019.

The proposal would be an extension to the current highway inspectors scheme, defined within ‘Well-managed Highway Infrastructure’, and qualified inspectors would be included in a national register.

The qualification would be renewal after five years. The UK Roads Board has indicated its support and the matter will be formally discussed at the next UKRLG meeting.

Details of the scheme are published on the IHE website, which also outlines ways for providers to gain approval to deliver training schemes: www.theihe.org.

Postscript

The IHE is also seeking views on the arrangements for a competency scheme for those undertaking safety and asset inspections of high-speed roads.

Current arrangements of driven inspections are becoming outdated through the introduction of new technology into this sector, but the ability to identify and prioritise defects remains and will still form an important part of any Section 58 defence to a highway damage or personal injury claim. All views would be welcome at: info@thehe.org

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