In the aftermath of the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a stuttering shift to a ‘new normal’, Street Works UK has been closely examining the pandemic response by utilities, their contractor colleagues, and interaction with local authorities. We have also considered what we have learnt and asking: what can we all do better?
What clearly emerges from all sides is that the level of collaboration and cooperation by those involved in monitoring, planning, and delivering street works from the utility and authority base during COVID was of a very high order.
As we refine our policy and processes into the next period, it is good to take stock of what significant strides we can and could take forward, what we should leave behind, and understand how we ‘lock in’ these wins across the board in support of our HAUC Vision 2025.
Challenges of Scale
During the COVID-19 period, at the heart of delivering good street and road works has been the quality of relationships and dialogue, engendering understanding and awareness of challenges on each side. These challenges have not been minor: quarries and materials’ availability and vehicular pattern flow changes (active travel and higher residential parking volumes) have variously hampered utilities. In turn, authorities have faced extraordinary challenges on all fronts impacting personnel availability, IT provision in WFH, the wholesale implementation of permitting, and the adoption and incorporation of Street Manager.
At the same time, we should be aware of the different perspectives with which teams operate because of scale. Many of our utilities and their contractors operate from national to the local level, from vast PLC to small-scale installer. By contrast, authorities operate generally in a mid-size within a consistent geographic boundary – as dictated by authority or borough geographies. Whilst combined authorities have enabled regional cooperation, much of the day-to-day work still sits with local authorities.
The net result is that utilities, and increasingly contractors, who have grown through aggregation, can be delivering across tens or (in some cases) 100s of local authorities. By contrast, authorities, boroughs, and combined authorities will generally be engaging with less than 10-15 utilities, notwithstanding the uptick in telecoms provision which can involve multiple small cable providers. This offers a unique perspective to utilities (and contractor partners) on the consistency of the local authority approach – which has been a known growing concern for utilities in recent years.
The challenge facing utilities and authorities
So, the average utility wakes up in the morning and goes about its work diligently across multiple authority and borough boundaries – often even employing the same contractor – seeking to do the best job they can. Increasingly frequently, a perfectly good performance by a team in one area is challenged when working on a project in an adjacent authority – and yet the teams delivering the works are the same. They are still working to the same direction, guidance, and contractual demands of the utility HQs. Despite this, there is a differing interpretation of legislation around issues including re-instatement, site layout and what charges should apply. The end result being that over a year it can cost utilities £100,000s more across an authority boundary, with some reflecting sizable bills for the most minor of modest infractions.
What comes to the fore from this observation is not that authorities are at all ignorant or acting to make money, but that the landscape has changed for both utilities and authorities. The modern street works space is increasingly complex, with more technology at hand, and faster processes, for all to understand and navigate. Likewise, the scale of works has never been greater, with full fibre targets and net zero infrastructure delivery important to every government and authority alike. This does not even consider the demand from new homes or energy systems that some utilities must accommodate. Simply put, street works have never been more in demand, and have never been more complex to deliver.
This complexity is a recipe for problems. As utilities push forward to deliver important new infrastructure, authorities are left to oversee these operations. This comes just at a time when their budgets are more stretched than ever and they must compete for talent in a jobs market approaching full employment. Authorities are expected to permit, inspect and oversee an ever-expanding scale of works in the interest of their residents, with often a small team that cannot be expected to appreciate the complexity and difficulties that utilities face. Often this leaves one or two individuals with significant responsibility and influence, yet with insufficient time to engage in the necessary discussions to support the best works possible or beyond the immediate issues on the road network.
We worry that the great strides forward made in efficiency, exploitation of technology, and partnership could be reversed – because the sensible and proportionate requests of utilities will be ignored. Utilities and authorities can end up talking past each other and not recognising their shared aims and how aligned they really are.
At its worst this can create considerable conflict. Authorities thinking utilities are not working in the proper ways, and utilities feeling that a ‘box ticking’ or ‘penalty culture’ has emerged. It is of course unquestionable, that each authority or combined authority should be satisfied that that their road surfaces and sub-structure are being accessed, protected, and repaired by utilities who treat the infrastructure, residents, and wider public with safety, care and respect.
Utilities have taken considerable steps forward over the last three decades, including the advent of digital means to record, categorise, test, train and assess their utility teams’ performance. The QA processes instigated and current safety demands of utility and contractor boards are echelons above where they were even 5 years ago. What must be recognised is that utilities and highway authorities are more similar than ever in terms of encouraging and demanding ‘performance’, and share the same desires to deliver good works and avoid conflict.
A New Approach
What COVID-19 drew out was an energy to get street works done efficiently and fairly, with best efforts on all sides to collaborate to best effect.
From a utility, and utility contractor perspective, there is an opportunity here to build upon the ‘play-fair’ dictum introduced and widely publicised by utilities and authorities at HAUC (UK) in all the regions during COVID-19. This does not involve any relaxing of rules, requirements, or safety demands. But it does involve a framework be applied to the sensible and proportionate interpretation of those rules and regulations.
Central to this will be the proportionate application of sanctions and greater trust between local authorities and utilities. This will transition what is too often labelled a culture of mistrust and challenge into one that fosters collaboration, and incentivises even better works and responses where issues emerge.
Street Works UK already enjoys a positive relationship with many authorities through the Joint Authorities Group (UK) to address national challenges which emerge. This relationship helps set the tone for the future of our industry and be the basis for the future of relationships between utilities and authorities. There is perhaps an even greater role for Street Works UK and JAG(UK) to communicate a new standard for collaboration and engagement between our sectors that fosters this approach, challenges our industries to meet it, and sets a path out for how we achieve it.
We must be prepared for frank, open and collaborative discussions that identify and address challenges. It is the only way we will meet the lofty ambitions and budgetary strictures we have.