What’s the key takeaway for product manufacturers from National Highways’ Initial Report on Roads Investment Strategy 3? – the demand for innovation is accelerating and that means a bigger role for third party certification.
On 16 May National Highways (NH) published its Strategic Roads Network Initial Report. This rather innocuous sounding document is required reading for any product manufacturer or supplier looking to work with the government owned roads operator. The report’s 180 pages capture the results of NH’s research into stakeholder needs, an analysis of the condition of its assets and its proposals for investing in the network during what will be the third Roads Investment Strategy period, running from 2025-2030 (RIS 3). As such it will play a major role in how much Ministers decide to spend on our motorways and A-roads – and what they think they are getting for their (our!) money.
The report sets a direction of travel that, from the conversations I’ve had over recent weeks, is a surprise to many in the highways sector. Big, multi-year major projects to expand capacity are out, to be replaced by a shift to making the most of existing assets either by increased attention on renewals or by making smaller targeted interventions to alleviate specific, localised challenges.
The reasons behind this direction are set out clearly in the document. Much of the motorway network was built in the 1960’s and 70’s and needs renewal, the government has committed to some very ambitious decarbonisation goals (of which more below) and money is of course extremely tight.
This isn’t to say National Highways will deliver no major project in the next decade, it still plans to deliver many schemes from RIS 1 and RIS 2, including the biggest of them all the Lower Thames Crossing. Intriguingly however, the Climate Change Committee in its annual report to parliament published on 28 June has called on government to use a 2 year delay to this and other road schemes to carry out a strategic review of their compatibility with its decarbonisation aspirations, using the Wales Roads Review as a model.
New demands for innovation from products manufacturers and suppliers
So, what might this mean for BBA stakeholders involved with National Highways and the wider highways sector? The initial report does provide a lot of useful information about possible work to be delivered on different routes during RIS 3 and also the specific challenges National Highways sees for different asset classes, stretching from road surfaces and barriers, through drainage, lighting and earthworks, to road markings and street furniture.
Nonetheless the broader message seems to me to be that NH will need to pull through a lot more innovation at every level of its supply chain to achieve its key objectives in areas like improving safety for road users and perhaps most importantly, decarbonisation. On this latter point, prior to the Initial Report, its Net Zero Highways Plan had already committed the organisation to achieving Net Zero construction and maintenance emissions by 2040. To NH’s credit, there is no attempt to kick this commitment down the road, and it is planning for a 40-50% reduction during the 2025-30 RIS 3 period, and investing in research at Cambridge and other locations. The Lower Thames Crossing is being used as a pathfinder project, and routemaps for zero carbon concrete, steel and asphalt are in place – but they are clearly going to need manufacturers and suppliers to keep coming up with innovative products that deliver deep cuts in emissions over their lifecycle.
A big role for certification
This is an environment in which product certification is going to have to do some heavy lifting. The scale and pace of change required means the highways sector must be able to overcome barriers preventing innovative low carbon products entering the market – and do it in a timely fashion.
Product acceptance is thus crucial. Manufacturers looking to take a lead in this space need to be able to secure approvals and certification of innovative products where a harmonised standard may not exist, carrying out the necessary due diligence to ensure that they will perform as intended on the network and in NH’s case, meet the requirements of its Manual of Contracts for Highways Works.
In plainer English, certification will give NH (or any other client) reassurance that an innovative product when supplied for its intended use and installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, will support its decarbonisation objectives and meet all the other performance requirements. Safety and durability are critical.
BBA HAPAS (the Highways Authorities Product Approval Scheme) looks ideally placed for this task, having been set up by the BBA in conjunction with NH’s predecessor Highways England as far back as 1998. The scheme exists to ensure the UK highways sector benefits from clear and consistent testing methods for the products and systems in use on our highways – and that they are compliant with relevant standards and regulations. Crucially, given the imperative to get products on to the market quickly, HAPAS can shoulder much of the burden of testing and assessment, while also putting key data on product performance into the hands of engineers working on design and project planning.
The onus is now on the whole sector to collaborate to ensure this certification infrastructure plays its part in delivering the physical infrastructure we need for the 2030s and beyond.