Roads contractors visiting Santa this Christmas will surely have had only one thing on their wish list: a safe passage through parliament for the Infrastructure Bill in 2015.
The legislation, expected to undergo committee stage hearings in the Commons in early January, could gain Royal Assent by early spring.
In its current guise, the bill would bring sweeping changes to the way roads projects are managed in England, ushering in a new governing body with new ways of working and – even better – a wad of cash to spend.
The Highways Agency is expected to become Highways England, a company owned by the government but no longer directly run by it, as soon as April. The new body will have a fixed, long-term budget in a bid to give contractors the certainty needed to drive down costs and save taxpayers £2.6bn over the next decade.
Most importantly for contractors, the body will have money to spend. The government has committed to investing more than £24bn to upgrade England’s strategic road network between 2010 and 2021, and this year could see some long-awaited major project awards.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin recently unveiled 83 new schemes that would be delivered with funding promised in 2013’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Busy A-roads will be upgraded to ‘expressways’ with standards similar to motorways.
The big winners this year are likely to come from the 25 firms appointed by the Highways Agency in November to its new-style Collaborative Delivery Framework. This is designed to ensure designers and contractors work together to get the best results for the taxpayer.
Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Skanska and a joint venture of Bam Nuttall and Morgan Sindall are on the highest-value lot of the agreement, for construction of schemes worth £100m-plus.
This will see them in the frame for major contracts on the strategic roads network throughout 2015.
Threats remain to this positive picture of roads construction in 2015, however, in the form of the legislative process, a general election and a European court ruling.
While the Infrastructure Bill has progressed relatively calmly through the Lords, it still has some hurdles to overcome in the Commons, where it could be delayed or amended. Indeed, the impending general election heightens the tension on this and all other coalition plans.
Meanwhile, the government was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to speed up efforts to tackle air pollution; environmental groups calling for fewer roads schemes could become harder to ignore.
Roads contractors will have to hope they convinced Santa they were good last year.
Highways Agency Collaborative Delivery Framework: big winners
Lot 3(b): schemes between £100-450m in value
- Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering
- Bam Nuttall / Morgan Sindall JV
- Carillion Construction
- Skanska Construction UK
Lot 3(a): schemes between £25m-100m in initial value, rising up to £300m