This week saw leading British construction brand Lafarge Tarmac relaunched as Tarmac - providing aggregates, asphalt, building materials and sustainable construction solutions - after a multi-billion acquisition by CRH plc.
Transport Network caught up with Tarmac Contracting's managing director, Paul Fleetham, to talk about the state of the road network and gearing up for the challenges of the future.
Q. Can you tell us what we can expect from Tarmac in the future, are there any new products or direction of travel you are taking?
We are doing a lot of work into embodied carbon [the amount of carbon released from material extraction, transport, manufacturing, and related activities]. We are trying to be more sustainable.
Paul Fleetham, MD of Tarmac Contracting
One of our latest products is a low temperature asphalt, which not only reduces carbon emissions from having to heat the material, but also has benefits when it comes to actually laying it on the roads.
Highways England has a very narrow working time. We shut motorway lanes down at 10pm and need them open again at 5am. The new low temperature material can be laid quicker, it cools quicker, we can lay it to a longer lane envelop. So it’s a win-win. Low energy and greater productivity. We have just brought that to market.
Utilisation is actually a big issue and we are working with Highways England to try an increase the working window.
We are spending a lot of time on recycled products. As the industry gets busier, high quality, high polished stone value products are becoming a premium. So we are modifying our plant and equipment so we can use more recycled products in our roads. We dig up about 2 million tonnes of road a year and we put a good proportion of recycled roads back into our asphalt plants.
There is a bit of a threshold with government specifications but we are trying to bring in special products that can be approved. So there is a little bit of bureaucracy that holds us back.
Q. We have seen major investment in the strategic roads network. Do you think government needs to do something more for the local roads sector now?
I think they do. We have seen good investment on the strategic network - £15bn through to 2020, which is very, very welcome and very needed. But to put this into context, that network is only about 2% of England’s roads and it carries about one third of the traffic. Over the last two decades the local road network has deteriorated rapidly and has been massively under-funded.
The local road network is as bad as I can ever remember it. It’s a simple question of funding.
Q. In the Budget we saw a dedicated roads fund set up from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) for the strategic network. Do you think there should be something similar for local roads and if so what form should it take?
Hypothecation would always be my favourite way forward. Putting revenues like VED back into the roads, I think it is a good move.
We also have fuel duty that’s £27bn a year if we could tap into that resource that would be very welcome. What we are actually seeing out there is certain local authorities are having to close sections of road because they can’t afford to maintain them. As a country it is wrong that you will travel from one county where you have reasonable roads to the next country where you have appalling roads. You haven’t got a consistent approach to local authority road funding.
Q. Do you see competition between local clients and Highways England, when it comes to winning the services of contractors?
There is this competition with the Highways England network that will force some contractors to neglect the local authority network. The local authority network is twice as much business to Tarmac as Highways England. We have long-term contracts with local authorities and we are there for the long game. We are increasing our capability to be able to take the additional Highways England work but maintain our current levels of activity within the local authority sector. We have just invested in our biggest asphalt production facility just off the M25 completed this year. We have increased our paving fleet by 30% year-on-year. We have invested in lorries, wagons, we have ordered a lot of new trucks. We are gearing for growth.
Q. Are you concerned about a sudden funding cut off come 2020?
That is a concern for us. For us a five year horizon is very good. But having made the investment, that investment has to secure returns. We don’t want idle plants and resources. I think the state of the local authority network is such that the government will have to putting in money to fund it. Those roads will need to be repaired we have third world infrastructure on our local roads. Part of our plan in gearing for growth is that we can meet that demand when it does it come.
Q. What about your human resources?
Human resources is our single biggest challenge. We can spend money on plants and equipment. That is easy. Skills shortages is the real challenge. This year we will take on 80 apprentices, and on top of that we are growing the skills needed for the future. The entire industry is heating up, we are going to look to HS2, we have a housing market that is going to start taking more resources and highways infrastructure is going to demand people.
We are developing our own home grown talent to have the resources that are expected of us. We have considered bringing in people from abroad but at the moment we have a negligible import from abroad. We are looking to fill the vacancies with a more diverse home grown demographic. We need to attract more women into the industry. We are actively pushing on that front in the local schools and colleges. We are making young people aware that this is an attractive industry that has long-term prospects.
Q. The recent highways funding self-assessment process released in draft form to councils has very little mention of road materials. Was this a surprise to you? Some authorities say they have moved back to hot rolled asphalt (HRA) after identifying issues with thin course surfacing. Do you think government should give more of a steer?
It’s very variable across the country. There is nothing wrong with thin surfacing provided they are laid properly. They are an excellent material. The trouble is there are occurrences where they are not laid properly and they will quickly fail. They are not very forgiving. If they are put down right they are very effective and better than HRA. The reason we stopped using HRA is because the stone mastic asphalt derivative materials were a better option.
I think some contractors have stopped laying down thin surfacing. The thing with a road, if it does fail it is very high profile. So a few poor examples have given it a bad name but as a product there is nothing wrong with thin surfacing. We work with councils and advise them on the best products. Many are keen to tap into our research and development and our technical team.
HRA can produce a lot of rutting. It’s a m