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Driving down costs

Saturday August 22nd, 2009

By Eric Brangier, Highways Manager, Colas

A pioneering PFI project for road maintenance between Portsmouth City Council and Colas has transformed the quality of the road network in Portsmouth  over the past five years.

With an extraordinary fall in public liability claims, a massive reduction in reactive maintenance costs and an award from the UK’s Institution of Highways and Transportation, Portsmouth City Council came top in the National Highways and Transport Public Satisfaction Survey 2008 (undertaken by MORI). It is little wonder local authorities around the country – and highway institutions across the globe – are now considering the benefits of a strategic approach to highway asset management to address their investment needs and successfully sustain and manage large and complex highway infrastructure assets.

Addressing decline

Portsmouth has bucked the trend for general acceptance of a national deterioration in the road network brought about by poor investment and maintenance decisions. As far back as 1996 the council identified that a new approach to road maintenance was required if it was to reverse the downward trend in the condition of its network, caused by insufficient resources.

Jim Comport, Services Development Manager at road construction specialists Colas, said: “Portsmouth City Council identified that prevention is better than cure. It was also clear a strategic approach would deliver better value to the citizens and taxpayers of Portsmouth, therefore it was essential to change the traditional mindset of a reactive maintenance and piecemeal approach to the assets by assessing the state of the network as a whole.”

Sophisticated new IT tools have emerged, enabling highway managers to gain a better understanding of the overall condition of their highway network and facilitate  assessment of the network as a single entity. In addition, optimised intervention levels can be programmed as part of an integrated strategy to ensure any new investment obtains the best rate of return available.

The council began to implement this strategy, leveraging Exor’s network management software to create for the first time a single source of all linear asset information, from roads and pavements to street lighting and bridges, in order to drive more effective maintenance strategies.

Strategic funding

The council was constrained in its vision by the traditional funding process; it was simply not possible within the annual funding budget to release the finance required to undertake such a radical proactive maintenance programme. As a result, the council looked for alternative funding arrangements and, in 2005, embarked upon the first road management Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract in the UK. 

The 25-year contract was awarded to Colas, which specialises in the construction and maintenance of highways. The contract, which passes responsibility for the road network to the organisation, involves the rehabilitation of the network, life cycle replacement and global operational maintenance.

“The objective was to deliver value for money by ensuring carriageways and footway resurfacing was undertaken when needed, not just when budgets permitted,” added Mr Comport. The contract also passed to Colas most of the risk associated with managing a highway network, including third-party claims, along with decisions relating to what work is done and when, providing the outcomes specified in the contract are achieved.

To ease the transition from Portsmouth City Council, Colas opted to retain the same software – and provide Portsmouth with access to the solution to ensure complete visibility of performance at all times. Colas also undertook an initial set of road status surveys to ascertain the state of the Portsmouth primary, secondary and tertiary road networks. The information was loaded into the system, enabling Colas to highlight areas of weakness and prioritise proactive maintenance activity.

In the five years since the contract began, Colas has treated 90 per cent of the primary, 60 per cent of the secondary and 20 per cent of the tertiary road network.

Meeting targets

An ongoing reactive maintenance programme is also being implemented by Colas and the council. Information on new events, such as failed street lighting or potholes, is recorded either by Colas inspectors or by Portsmouth via its direct link into the Public Inquiry Manager tool where it logs citizen reports relating to the network. This information is immediately available to Colas, enabling the dispatcher to determine the urgency of the problem and action the response team. Every action, from the initial making safe to the permanent repair, is recorded on solution to provide a complete history of the defect.

Both reporting faults and recording repairs are now being improved with the introduction of mobile technology. Colas is deploying PDAs to its inspectors to enable information to be immediately uploaded and, in the future, to ensure every remote operator, including road crews, will have mobile access.

Mobile technology will significantly improve productivity, reducing the need for inspectors to come into the office and ensuring road crew have immediate access to both job information and detailed history of the relevant part of the road network.

Throughout the contract Colas has worked closely with the service provider to enable compliance to software upgrades and legislative requirements such as the Traffic Management Act in 2008, which went extremely smoothly.

In addition to providing a centralised view of all network information and a complete history of maintenance activity, the solution is also a critical monitoring tool. At the end of each month, Colas pulls reports from the solution to monitor our performance, which are presented to Portsmouth City Council. Key to the success of this contract has been the close working relationship between Colas and Portsmouth. The ability to demonstrate to the authority the level of service, via the software, has contributed significantly to building a trusted relationship.

In addition to the reports, Portsmouth has live access to the system, enabling the council to audit Colas’ performance at any time. This complete system visibility is paramount in demonstrating that Colas is delivering the required level of service.

And the benefits have been recognised. Over the five years to date, which represented the core investment element of the 25-year programme, Colas has invested £60 million on capital work to bring Portsmouth’s highway infrastructure to a high standard – with the council receiving recognition from Portsmouth’s resident committees, community groups and business community.

As well as coming top in the National Highways and Transport Public Satisfaction Survey 2008, Portsmouth and Colas were awarded the Institution of Highways and Transportation’s 2008 Award for Effective Partnerships.

Furthermore, there has been a significant reduction in the money spent meeting public liability claims, which have dropped from an average of 200 personal accident injury claims per year prior to the PFI to just 40 today. Mr Comport said. “The roads are in great shape and Colas is spending less money on reactive maintenance, allowing more cash to go into the infrastructure.”

The ongoing focus is now on improving day-to-day services, from street cleaning to grass cutting, to improve the overall quality of the road network, as well as on ensuring this information is shared with the citizens of Portsmouth.


A growing number of local authorities are now looking closely at the benefits of a strategic approach to highway asset management in the drive for efficiencies and improved public satisfaction. The PFI model for road asset maintenance is one method of securing investment which requires a long-term perspective to be taken. Approximately £10 billion of UK road maintenance projects is now in the pipeline using this service delivery approach; indeed, many organisations around the world are benchmarking this project and visiting Portsmouth to see how the road network improvements have been achieved.

The long-term service arrangement required by the PFI has resulted in a highly effective partnership between Colas and Portsmouth City Council which has improved the quality of people’s lives in the area. The council has reduced congestion, increased road safety and improved the quality of the road network – which has delivered a better infrastructure for business and in turn is helping to regenerate and rejuvenate Portsmouth for its future citizens.

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