Peter Adams

Interview: Peter Adams Highways Agency

The Highways Agency's new major projects director Peter Adams believes that efficiency is the key to delivering new roads on budget.

It may not always be immediately obvious to the impatient driver, anxious to get from A to B, late for a meeting, stuck in a traffic jam, but the roads beneath the wheels of the nation's cars are good for the economy.

According to the Highways Agency's new director of major projects, Peter Adams, we need to deliver improvements to the existing network. To do this, the agency requires substantial government funding. But in these times of austerity the amount of cash on the table isn't quite enough. "Without close attention to efficiency, we simply wouldn't be able to deliver all of the projects on the schedule," says Adams.

By the time this article goes to press, Adams will have been in post little more than a month, having been promoted internally from divisional director for major projects in southern England. He's now leading a 300-strong team across the country.

We are sitting in the agency's London headquarters. Adams explains that the purpose of their major projects is construction, "from widening existing dual carriageways, through to programmes such as the managed motorway programme, which is how we get motorists to use the hard shoulder in a safe way for congestion alleviation. This means that the hard shoulder gets used when it's needed."

In October 2010 there was a spending review announcement that set out the agency's roads programme for the following four years. "That set out the new schemes we needed to deliver along with a funding profile, which was then about £1.4bn." In November last year, this was increased by an additional £0.7bn for the delivery of six more major projects.

Given that the agency is now working to deliver 20 schemes, and that the ones Adams is responsible for come with a £10m-400m price tag, it comes as no real surprise that "the big challenge was that this wasn't enough money. We were confident that if we were clear what the objectives were – we knew what our order book was – actually we could flow teams from one scheme to another. There's a lot of efficiency in doing that and we committed to delivering those projects for 20 per cent less."

To achieve this Adams admits he had to be sure that the efficiencies would allow him to deliver against them. "We're establishing the programme functions that enable us to do that. This could, for example, involve getting our supply chain together to look at instead of buying gantries for every job, buying gantries for all of the schemes in the forward order book."

Agency scope

The agency, which is an executive agency of the Department for Transport, is responsible for the motorways and key trunk roads sector of the road market in England known as the Strategic Road Network. The network totals approximately 4,500 miles of major roads in England. Despite being an apparently inconsequential 3 per cent of all roads in England, in terms of its importance to the national economy it is vital, as it carries one-third of all traffic and two-thirds of road freight in England.

While the primary functions of the Highways Agency are to manage traffic, tackle congestion, provide information to road users and improve safety and journey time reliability, Adams's role is almost entirely about enhancement to the network. There are times when his department will be asked to take on major repairs such as replacing life-expired viaducts. But for the most part his role, as described by Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton, is of leading "the delivery of our programme of major road schemes, which represents government's investment in improvements for the strategic road network in England, as well as overseeing the development of schemes for the next spending review period after 2015".

The road to success

Adams, who is 41, left school at 16 to become an engineering apprentice at BAA, taking a conventional route through the stages of Ordinary and Higher National certificates. He started off working as part of various maintenance teams at Gatwick airport, "learning the different engineering systems that make up an airport and learning about how they work".

At the end of the apprenticeship BAA sponsored Adams to do a degree course in order to continue his education. Adams remembers it as a difficult commitment, as it took up a day and two evenings per week. After four years of a part-time degree course, Adams' career path was shifting in emphasis from maintenance to project work. By the time he'd finished his degree, he had a new position at BAA as project engineer.

"This is where I started to get into the construction arena," says Adams. But it wasn't with anything like the multi-billion budgets he's used to today. "I started with projects that were £100-£200, to put a socket in a cabin for a baggage handling company. But it grew to refurbishing shop units and extending retail spaces. There were also technology projects, introducing new baggage and security screening systems back in the 1990s."

This rapid career development led Adams into large-scale construction such as terminal extensions and the innovative Pier 6 project at Gatwick. This was the first time in the UK where a bridge was built over a live taxiway. "So there were Jumbo Jets going underneath, and that was a huge challenge to be able to demonstrate the safety case to do that and construct it on an airfield. This actually involved constructing it off site and trundling this enormous structure down the taxiway overnight to put it in place."

After two decades with BAA Adams left to join Thames Water to broaden his experience. "I started to learn about the water sector, but I ended up in a role as a programme manager leading the development of a business plan for a £5bn investment programme, '3bn operating cost, business for five years. It was a big thing to put together."

In 2009, after three years at Thames Water, Adams joined the Highways Agency in the role divisional director for major projects in southern England. The move was based on his desire to get back into the construction sector. "I was having a fantastic experience but I wanted to get back into delivering assets and infrastructure, working with the supply chain." Adams finds great satisfaction in looking back on the physical achievements that "will live for a long time".

The role at the Highways Agency provided Adams with the opportunity to do that with a bigger team and a bigger portfolio than he had experienced with BAA. It also presented Adams with the "chance to understand how government worked. As an executive agency we're very close to government and the Department for Transport and we have a close relationship with ministers. Understanding those relationships and how to manage them, was a key pull for me".

The management side of Adams' career started effectively when he became a project manager. "In that role you are not line managing the people as such, but you are the leader of the project. You have to bring people together in a challenging way, because they are coming from different organisations, cultures, backgrounds, agendas. You have to try to bring them together around a single project objective and get them to deliver it." It was in developing these leadership skills that Adams found his taste for management. As he moved on to bigger and bigger projects these skills have matured. "The issues become more complex and difficult at times. You have to keep the team together." As Adams started to lead a portfolio of projects he found he was starting to manage teams of project managers and it "grew from there".

There has always been a commitment to learning about leadership skills. "I wouldn't say that the experience in management was gained purely on the job, but on the other hand I've not taken time out to pursue more academic management skills apart from my degree, which was much more engineering focused. But I have done organisational and development training."

Efficiency is the key

According to the Highways Agency's annual report 2010-11, the main long-term challenges faced are the improvement of reliability and tackling capacity constraints against a backdrop of increasing construction costs, environmental concerns and growing traffic volumes. "Finding the right balance between measures to make better use of the existing network and prioritising network improvements which support economic growth will be a key challenge for us over the coming years."

A less corporate way of framing the proposition is this: new roads are required because they're good for the economy, and yet while they provide economic stimulus the associated costs are astronomical. "There's a direct economic benefit as a result of what we do," says Adams. "There is on average a threefold return on investment. By relieving congestion, we're making it more efficient for business to get from A to B. It's also good in terms of the work on the ground, because that is money in the economy. Ours is a good product in terms of growth stimulation."

I put it to Adams that, to the public, there seems to be more investment in large-scale infrastructure than ever. Here he is, with billions to spend, while Crossrail and HS2 have both recently entered new phases of implementation, leading to nationally improved travel networks.

"Before the spending review our budget was bigger. So in fact our investment plans have reduced and some schemes were cancelled in October 2010.The volume of schemes we were working on to bring forward was reduced as well. So the scale of infrastructure – certainly from our perspective and probably from others as well – has reduced from what it was two years ago. We're not on the trajectory that we have been in the past."

"But," adds Adams, referring to the first point he made, "because we're delivering the efficiency agenda we're still able to afford to work on all 20 schemes we're scheduled to work on. Without that efficiency we simply could not afford to do it." *

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