29 July 2021 | Training | Collaboration

Industry interview: Addressing industry challenges

Past President of the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (LGTAG) John Lamb talks to LCRIG Content Director Alec Peachey about some of the challenges facing the highways sector and why asset management is about more than just fixing potholes. 

Q. What’s your background and how has it helped prepare you for the role you’re doing now? 

A. “Thirty years ago I completed my Master of Science at the University of Westminster in Transportation Planning and Management. This cemented my earlier choices during my BA (Hons) where I had placements in British Rail and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

“Early roles were technical in nature – major scheme assessment, investment strategies and modal change. I have always sought out the ‘Big Data’ and tried to make sense of different choices and options open to us.

“Launching Travelwise in Hertfordshire back in 1992 (gosh where has the time gone) there has always been a hard core of people who understand the need to invest in the ‘here and now’ to unlock growth; but a desperate desire to create a legacy that makes things different and better.

“Increasingly I lead corporate teams and provide support to bringing about change at the heart of where people live. Residents and business care less about the silos by which councils structure services – they only want outcomes in the place where they live.”


Q. What are some of the main challenges faced when it comes to engaging with the sector?  

A. “Too many demands and not enough time! Increasingly I need to be smart and focused on where I spend my time. The invites to conferences, events and zooms have grown like topsy. I have attended more technical and professional events over the last 16 months than ever before.

“The biggest challenge is how to practically apply all the new ideas and initiatives in a managed and coherent way. There is no shortage of new products and new approaches (some of them have come full circle and are back in favour). The sector is diverse and it would be wrong to impose a single view or perspective. Over 20 years in permanent posts contrasts with more recent assignments and contracts. Across Mets, Counties, Districts and Unitaries there are a myriad of approaches and so many ways to locally tailor solutions. How they each engage with the supply chain must be a local decision and model choice of works is highly personable.”


Q. In what ways does the sector need to evolve?   

A. “All councils must be open to new thinking and new ways of working. Some of the work Kully Boden and Dave Kinsey have been doing in Derby shows excellence in operational Planning aligning teams around the MultiHog to achieve tangible and swift results. The long term asset management approach of Blackpool have shown the need to better understand how value can be driven into place based outcomes by stretching the pound in the ground. Asset management is still to be placed centre stage in every council in the way Bradford or Leeds have done.

“Allied to this is a clear forward programme based on solid depreciation data. Traditional data sources no longer cut it frankly Route Shoot, Gaist, Vaisala all offer better ways to map and track decay to establish optimal intervention. This is where the customer and NHT come in. I cannot understand why any council will not open itself up to the scrutiny of their own public. Asset management is a technical process that MUST be opened up to challenge from fellow officers, members and the customer. LGTAG’s Vice President Jon Munslow has long advocated the need to ‘get inside the data’ but achieve place based impact by multiple interventions – don’t just fix the pothole.”


Q. Can regulation be a barrier to innovation?  

A. “No. Unless you want it to. Sadly there are so many people in the sector who are not looking up and looking outwards as to what is possible.”


Q. In what ways can the industry work better with local authorities and should there be a greater sharing of knowledge?   

A. “Sadly I see the same old faces at ADEPT, LGTAG and Highways Alliance meetings. Zoom and Teams have broadened this a little – but all too often I really want to see new and different faces. We need to skip a generation and look for the up and coming talent. The ADEPT leadership programme is great in this respect and one of the people on ‘my’ team is now enrolled.

“The knowledge is often ‘there’ but the application of – universally and at speed – is often glacial. ‘These new LEDs will never catch on’ I heard from one chap when I was at Trafford who has now left and it shows that sadly we have to convince ‘Colin in the corner’ who seems to hold sway over all reason and logic.

“DfT could not have helped the sector more in supporting – through HMEP and since then. I think there should be a bit more specificity on key areas such as 100% LEDs by 2024?”


Q. In terms of your role, what do you hope to achieve in the next 12 months? 

A. “I have had to step back from LGTAG – where I was previously Past President – and also from ADEPT.  I was the very last person to join the County Surveyor Society as the next agenda item was to change its name to something more akin to how councils now operate. My focus is at the UKRLG the senior most body for all highways and transportation across the UK. I do still wonder how I find myself on that group of such esteemed and learned people.

“I would like to support new and fresh thinking about how the UKRLG (and its Boards), along with the representative bodies of CSS Wales, Scots, Northern Ireland and various English boards  – can build a vision as to how councils support the ambition of Carbon Zero by 2050. The ambition is there but the practical application of it and key milestones along the way will be vital.”


Q. How are you aiming to help councils and what would you like to hear from them?  

A. “I work across so many councils and meet so many great people. As we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic I think we all need to take stock as to how we can act as a Fellowship of skilled and experienced practitoners. I would like to hear more from those councils who can provide capacity and offer initiatives that can be scaled up.  Let’s create space for all the great work that we do – not talking about potholes. We will never be able to fix all the potholes before they pop up (£15 Billion would help though Mr Sunak). But we can and must provide local and practical ways to bring about positive change that councillors and MPs can understand, appreciate and fund more of.”


Q. How important is health and wellbeing and what are you doing through LGTAG to support this?

A. “This year has been hard on so many. I was a classic ‘big man’ on the outside doing ever more work and delivering at scale and at pace. My two key workstreams in North Essex and separate role in Cambridgeshire are chalk and cheese and a change is as good as rest. But 12 hour days and then a repeat the next day has been the lot of many. Earlier this year LGTAG had Blue Monkey Coaching provide some context, challenge and support. LGTAG’s Emily See has worked hard as part of that building up to the current Health and Wellbeing survey. Even filling in the survey made me take stock that I need to re-balance given how rubbish the last year has been.”


Q. What does your role with the Highways Sector Council involve and how important are the group? 

A. “Every group and body in England needs to understand and get behind the work of the HSC. Its focus is just on England but with sector giants of Scott Wardrop and James Haluch we do ensure diversity across the Union. We must understand how we secure a Sector Deal for Highways and Transportation. There are a number of sub groups and increasingly supporters are being brought in to help with our work in these groups. ‘Ask not what HSC can do for you but what you can do for HSC’.

“The commitment is significant – hence me having to row back on other commitments – but to work with some of the sector giants such as the current Chair Leon Daniels – is a privilege. Anna Delvecchio has been doing a sterling job (aside from her role at Mott MacDonald) in supporting the Council and in drawing in new talent. Do click here  if you can support our work.


Q. What impact has Covid-19 had on local highway authorities resilience and service delivery? 

A. “Throughout the pandemic DfT have been working to support the sector in many ways. Quietly but effectively they undertook several ‘pulse’ surveys as to how the sector was performing and current challenges and how to overcome them. It was part of the new apparatus of Resilience that DfT have been progressing. I was really pleased with how the sector responded and how many councils used the dip in traffic last year to undertake full blockade and renewal works. For those who did the benefits have been cost and time savings.

“A. 6.1.5 of code of practice for well managed highways expects highway authorities to manage risk including human disease. For high performing councils with three to five programmes this has not been a problem. Wider resilience – especially in terms of extreme weather – e.g. severe flooding worries me constantly.  DfT have been working with Dr Hugh Deeming on resilience and between the three of us we are creating something that could be a game changer in terms of the entire architecture of resilience and response. Councils have been great on snow and ice but this is not going to help with new varied weather systems. We need to think wider and we need different support and training.

“The recent intense flooding in Germany and Belgium are entirely consistent with Deeming’s analysis. The recent storms in London were not even on the scale of Storm Desmond (Cumbria) or Storm Eva (Calderdale) which are still the UK’s high watermark, but the impact to homes and communities is devastating.

“Resilience is not another duty – it has always been there and we must ‘dial up’ what we do and how. James Bayley and the crucial role of the UK Roads Board continue to raise the expectation and with DfT we need to collectively respond better to communities.”