Smoothing over the bumps!
They have received praise, but also been subjected to a fair amount of criticism. They have experienced unforeseen difficulties, but have somehow managed to overcome the vast majority of them to keep their massive work programme on schedule.
Now, Island Roads, responsible for improving the Isle of Wight highways and much more, are just over halfway through they initial seven-year core investment phase of their upgrade and maintenance programme.
It’s a fair bet that if you have driven on the Island recently, or have even been out walking, then you have passed along a section of road or footpath that has been improved by resurfacing work, under streetlights that have also been upgraded.
Island Roads began work on the Highways PFI contract on April 1, 2013, after it was publicly announced the previous year that the Island’s highways network was the worst in the country. As a result Isle of Wight Council became one of only three local authorities, and the only rural area, to be awarded Pathfinder Highways PFI funding; a grant of £260million which does not have to be repaid.
It was the largest grant of its type ever secured for the Island. Island Roads’ streamlining plan, becoming one integrated service from several separate organisations, also secured the IW Council a £1million saving.
Under the PFI, the average condition of the Island roads network, from the busiest routes to the lesser used residential and rural roads, will be brought up to an agreed standard and maintained at the improved level for the agreed overall 25-year contract.
Island Roads employ 200 Island people, as well as having a supply chain with over 150 local companies. Paul Herbert is the company’s Service Director, and I spoke to him about some of the potholes and pitfalls his workforce has encountered as they strive to ensure a smooth passage for Island drivers and pedestrians alike.
Paul explained: “This whole process was about seven years in the planning. It then became an initial seven-year phase, as opposed to five years, mainly because of tourism. When resurfacing, there are not that many diversion routes on the Island, and that would have had a huge impact on tourism in summer months, even though summer is really when you want to be doing the work.
“We then had to integrate seven organisations into one, and then make sure we hit the ground running. We invested heavily in technology, fleet and plant, and as a result we are doing 15 times the amount of work the Island has ever seen, and that draws its own problems. But overall I think the Island should be proud of what has been achieved so far. You can’t but notice the magnitude of work that has already been undertaken — improvements to Island roads that would stretch to London and back.”
I would ask for some patience, and a better approach to our guys when they are out there working
Paul accepts problems have been encountered around virtually every corner, but he has been particularly disappointed with the level of verbal abuse some of his workers have encountered while carrying out their work. Island Roads has four resurfacing crews working right across the Island, with two working each night on the more urban routes to try to keep disruption to a minimum.
But inevitably there have been major delays and diversions, and it seems many front line workers are being unfairly blamed for the disruptions. Paul said: “We all get struck in traffic due to road closures or temporary traffic lights. But people really do need to look at themselves if they are verbally abusing an Island worker who is upgrading a road.
“You don’t go into schools or hospitals and start abusing staff, and I am disappointed sometimes by the approach some people take to our workforce who are trying to do a job like anyone else. I would ask for some patience, and a better approach to our guys when they are out there working. We all get frustrated, but to take it out on the guys who are just doing their job is wrong. I know that overall they are doing a good job, so a bit of patience would be appreciated.”
Paul continued: “Having said that, month after month we receive a lot of compliments about the work we are doing across the Island, even though we probably don’t get the full recognition for the activities we undertake on this project, and the wider benefits. They include the setting up the IW Foundation which has donated up to £80,000 a year for the last three years, which goes to local good causes tackling social exclusion.”
I suggested to Paul that surely one of the biggest issues of the whole project was deciding where upgrades should take priority, without antagonising residents from other areas who believe work on their particular road is just as important.
Paul pointed out: “The Island is split into six districts, and across the entire Island there are four hierarchy (levels) of roads, from main routes down to rural back roads.
Of course we will always do something wrong, and we can improve
All these roads across all districts need to be uplifted, and if, for example, we had worked around the Island in an anti-clockwise direction, starting in Cowes, then West Wight would not have been touched until the seventh year, and their roads would have been falling apart.
“Naturally, people are concerned about the pothole outside their house, or the bridge that needs work on as they make their way to work. But obviously we can’t be everywhere. I could have twice as many service crews on the Island, but that would only cause chaos.
“The whole project needs to be managed in a methodical way. We try to take the worst first, but the worst in one area may not be the worst road on the Island, simply one that a regular driver on that stretch of road thinks is the worst.”
He added: “Of course we will always do something wrong, and we can improve. But at present we are where we need to be to achieve the requirements of the contract we undertook. Once the initial seven-year upgrade programme is completed, work will be ongoing for a further 18 years to maintain and repair roads and footpaths as and when they need attention. It will be a smaller programme of work, but inevitably surfaces will deteriorate, and will need to be maintained.”