15 November 2012

Steel city highways to be 'streets ahead' under PFI

Steel city highways to be streets ahead under PFI image

Some of the UK’s worst roads are set for a dramatic about-turn under a huge investment programme that’ll transform them into league table high-flyers.

Sheffield City Council has embarked on what is the largest highways Private Finance Initiative (PFI) programme in the UK, in a £2bn deal with private sector contractor Amey, who will deliver the far-reaching project over the next 25 years.

The Streets Ahead contract will see Amey take on the responsibility of bringing Sheffield’s highways network up to a significantly high standard within the first five years – known as the core investment phase – then maintain that standard for the remaining 20 years.

Beach huts picture Sheffield City Council has signed a £2bn PFI highways deal.

Supported by the Department for Transport, which is to pump in £1.2bn over the life of the contract, Amey will also replace all sodium street lighting with LED intelligent technology, undertake a city-wide programme of highway tree replacement and complete all other winter maintenance and street cleaning duties as part of the contract.

Most of the work will take place within what’ll be an intensively programmed five-year core investment period and involves road and pavement upgrades, replacement of street lighting columns and installation of latest LED technology in street lamps as well as in road traffic signalling.

The decision to opt for a PFI scheme was not taken lightly by Sheffield City Council, but was steered to some degree by its track record of already running successful PFI agreements for waste and housing schemes.

The sense of optimism about this latest venture is tangibly high. ‘The key benefits from a council perspective will be a transformation of the look and feel of the city,’ says Steve Robinson, the council’s head of highway maintenance.

‘The improved road networks we hope will attract more visitors, investors and new businesses to the city. Bus and transport companies will be more willing to invest in a city with the best roads. Improvements will also mean less disruption for the emergency services - the effect of which cannot be overestimated.’

A national survey conducted in 2011 on behalf of the Department for Transport revealed that Sheffield’s roads were some of the UK’s worst, so the urgency for a major u-turn on standards is understandable.

'The statistics showed that we could no longer address spot issues, like potholes, and that a complete overhaul was necessary,’ says Robinson. ‘A lack of investment and budget cuts have meant road improvements have had to take a back seat.

‘It’s a vicious circle. The longer you leave the roads, the worse they become and the more work and money is needed to put them right, which is why the Streets Ahead contract is a great thing for us.’

No less than 80% of the total works programme will be completed in the first five years, with ten times the amount of road works being completed than before, and the financial incentives are in place to ensure that Amey delivers on time.

The council will pay annual unitary charges to Amey - these rise from 75% in year one to 100% after five years and thereafter, if the contractor meets targets.

Under the contract, Amey will work on a performance structure. Failure to complete works on time will result in a points deduction, reflected as a payment reduction. ‘We’re committed to working as effectively as possible to avoid financial penalties,’ explains Mike Notman, Amey’s director of highways PFIs, who is charged with delivering all the scheme’s obligations.

The core investment phase will see the majority of the city’s roads resurfaced and around half its footways repaired, while some 1,000 highway trees a year that are not ‘fit for purpose’ could be replaced (eventually, up to half of the 36,000 total might be substituted with more appropriate, highway-friendly alternatives.

Notman talks most excitedly about the citywide LED street lighting element of the contract, which, once complete, he claims will make Sheffield the first city in the UK, Europe and perhaps the world to run a fully remote monitored and managed street lighting system.

‘Only Los Angeles will come close to the scale and scope of the Sheffield contract,’ says Notman. ‘We’ve worked with other councils on LED projects but nothing on this scale. It’s set to transform the city.’

Each LED lamp will be fitted with a communication device linked to the control centre, which constantly monitors the light quality. If a light is down or not functioning properly, a message is sent there notifying staff that it needs repairing. ‘The system will be a far cry from the current one where staff patrol the streets searching for malfunctioning lamps,’ he adds.

The operational flexibility of being able to control a single lamp, a whole street or entire area could prove a major plus in novel ways. Brightness levels could be varied to suit a specific need - a football fixture for example. Lights en route to the stadium could be increased as fans travel to the match, then lowered during the game before being raised again so crowds can travel home safely.

Because the light quality is better and cleaner, Sheffield Council will be able to reduce its 68,000 current total to 60,000 – an 11% drop, Robinson reports. Although dimming during certain night hours is still proving contentious, manufacturer studies reveal that light intensity can be lowered by 30% without the public being aware of any change. Although this hasn’t been piloted yet, Robinson predicts that the council could slash the energy it uses to light the streets by up to 40%.

When works are fully up to speed, 700 directly employed staff will be working on the contract, including 480 existing Street Force staff transferred from the council under TUPE, 170 new jobs will be created to carry out capital investment works of which 120 will form a strong streetlighting workforce, as well as 50 staff from existing Amey projects.

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