The new president of the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (LGTAG) began his premiership with a call for radical resilience, tapping into a restlessness in the highways sector and a desire to end the ‘we have always done it this way culture’.
In his opening address to the annual TAG president’s conference, Mr Lamb (pictured) warned that the skills base for tackling emergencies was ‘patchy’ and that a drive towards change was both inevitable and vital to help tackle the issues the sector is facing.
‘In 20 years, the internal combustion engine will be consigned to history. We have to look beyond the means of propulsion and think again about Mobility as a Service. The iPhone is over 10 years old. Most of our traffic signals are older. They don’t have cameras or Sims in them. It’s time for a bit of an upgrade.
‘It’s crucial that we understand the hard facts of data and the emerging trends. We must prioritise jobs and local economies and not just a few minutes of journey time savings on the motorway network.’
A veteran of the 2015 winter floods, when 10,000 homes and properties were flooded at a cost of £5bn, he drew on personal experience to stress the importance of networks of mutual support within TAG and externally with other professional bodies.
‘The people you are sitting next to should be your phone a friend. We need to be a learning body and we should never be so proud that we don’t get out there and see some of the communities that have been affected. We need to raise the skills base.’
By way of warning, Mr Lamb was not afraid to court controversy by raising the prospect of punitive measures and even, in typical style, a willingness to state was he saw as home truths.
‘If the Government puts children and adult services into special measures, are we confident there are not a few highway authorities that are perhaps not up at the top level. And for some of those that are Band 3 [in the Department for Transport self-assessment process] I am not sure I would put them there.’
When it came to the fundamental issue of funding, My Lamb did not issue a standard request for more funds but a call for new financial ideas.
‘The hardest asset, which we have yet to see shape and change, is actually the money aspect. We understand PFIs. They are 25 years’ long, really complicated and no wants to touch them with a barge pole. We understand what the here and now is like, in terms of reactive maintenance spend, but there has to be some way of bridging that gap between the 12 months and the 25 years. We have to get the money to work as hard as our front line teams are. Our assets and people continue to evolve. Revenue expenditure, capital expenditure: that definition restricts people. It should “Totex”, total expenditure.’
Those unused to Mr Lamb’s style, and there can be few in the sector who are totally unfamiliar, will start to see his engaging tactics. A radical suggestion is often couched with a rhetorical gambit and a comical tongue in cheek tone.
A classic of his style came in his call for an Active Travel Act for England. ‘We need to think about we can develop in the way that the Welsh are developing in terms of its active travel legislation. I do worry for England. In Wales there is a whole cohort of young people who are walking more, cycling more, it’s a training academy for Welsh rugby and that worries me. So we need active travel legislation in England so that we create our own training grounds.’
Behind the professional banter is a man with a serious commitment to progress leading an organisation with the skills to make it happen.