Viewpoint: Partnership - the road ahead for highways

24/11/2022

Norse Highways is a partnership between Norfolk County Council and the UK’s leading council-owned company, Norse Group, which is delivering both growth and efficiencies under a flexible system. 

Operations director Jason Glasspoole looks at the benefits of such partnership arrangements for the future of the sector.

Having previously worked in numerous client and operational roles within the highways service at Norfolk CC, I know first-hand what it is like to run highways services under both local authority and commercial partnership models.

The highway network is fundamental to an area’s commercial and social infrastructure, providing vital links that help keep local authority environs functioning efficiently. Effective road maintenance and prompt repairs are therefore at the forefront of council agendas.

However, like most local authority departments, the demand for services is increasing, as are public expectations. As such, highways operations are looking for innovative solutions to deliver more, using a similar level of resources while retaining a high standard of customer satisfaction.

Norfolk CC saw in the Norse model the opportunity for highways operations to grow in terms of commercial opportunities, bringing efficiency savings and providing access to commercially-based support and central services.

The model also demonstrates one of Norse' fundamental principles that underpin all its local authority partnerships - namely a clear understanding of both client and local member needs.

Operational benefits

When it comes to operational management, the partnership provides clear advantages in a number of areas.

Under Norse, team managers have a highly focused approach. They prepare and report on comprehensive P&L accounts for each business area, with internal reporting up to commercial director level.

Managers also have dedicated finance business partners to help ensure figures are handled and communicated in greater detail.

We are implementing a bespoke planning, scheduling and job costing system, developed by Norse in conjunction with a specialist software provider, that will interface with the county council’s highways management system. This will be a major step in better understanding true costs within highways operations as well as contributing to operational efficiencies and financial savings.

Norse Highways is agile, by which I mean we have the flexibility to change our delivery model and priorities to suit the network; or to change work specifications without the need to vary charges. It’s about collaboration as opposed to the rigidity of a traditional client/contractor model.

This agility was clearly highlighted during the pandemic. The pressures caused by the pandemic, resourcing and decision-making were dealt with as one challenge, rather than a client and contractor having three different issues to resolve. Operating under HSE-approved, COVID-safe working arrangements we were able to maintain the winter service in tough circumstances.

We also now have access to a wider supplier market via Norse’s commercial procurement department. This enables us to bring in supplementary resources to respond to additional government funding or, with small contracts, to go to the market without the restriction of working solely with framework suppliers.

Making progress

Over two years into the new partnership, and despite the pandemic, we have already seen financial performance targets exceeded and KPI targets met. Performance and response times have, by common agreement, improved post-transfer.

Our council partners acknowledge that the Norse Highways model provides comprehensive, cost-effective and flexible delivery across a comprehensive range of highway services while ensuring the council’s continued control through the governance structure that comes from the joint venture arrangement. The council has board representation, which brings direct influence over service delivery.

Norse’s vast sector experience has played a major role in its success. Norse enjoys a strong financial pedigree, and a proven track record of providing high-quality, effective services underpinned with valuable efficiencies that don’t compromise performance levels. It also provides local authorities with the assurance of long-term service delivery.

Grahame Bygrave, Norfolk’s director of highways and waste, said: 'I can safely say that in the county council’s experience, Norse Highways are trusted partners on the road to the reliable management of highways and are always ready to flexibly respond to challenges as they arise.'

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