If his interview in the last issue of CSW is anything to go by, the Highways Agency chief appears not to like his staff very much; nor his organisation and nor, indeed, his own job.
On 30 March, the agency celebrated its 20th anniversary, but it is now locked in a struggle. Far from the certainty of being removed from the civil service, as Graham Dalton suggested, there is a real possibility that the Infrastructure Bill, into which the agency's demise is written, will either run out of parliamentary time or that MPs will vote it down.
My union hopes the plan is defeated. We believe the move to separate the Highways Agency from the civil service is wholly unnecessary and politically motivated, acting as a precursor to full-scale privatisation and the stripping of what is a £107bn public asset: the strategic road network. Some MPs have already spotted the inevitable need for an income stream – road tolling – if this is to go ahead, and have not been won round by carefully-worded ministerial denials.
Mr Dalton was generous enough to state that the agency “has got quite a decent reputation”. I believe this is known as damning with faint praise. Until recently, colleagues were being told we were very highly considered in Whitehall as an organisation that was flexible, adaptable, and delivered what it said it would, on time and on budget. Incredibly, our ejection from the civil service is still being portrayed as a reward and a sign of trust in our delivery ability.
The chief executive complained that the organisation is the only big infrastructure manager still run by civil servants – unlike water, rail, telecoms and power. There are some common denominators between these privately-run industries, but they are not high customer satisfaction, outstanding customer service, low prices and value for money. Taxpayers continue to subsidise major privatised industries, while they pay significant dividends to shareholders and charge ever-higher amounts to their customers – many of whom have little or no choice as to service provider. If civil servants did still run them, they would at least be more accountable.
In what can only be seen as a swipe at his staff, Mr Dalton stated that the “sort of people I need are not the sort of people who would automatically look at a public sector role – certainly not a central civil service role”. Existing Highways Agency employees, who for years have put public service before personal gain or private profit, will wonder what this means for them. It is worth considering, however – as The Transport Committee recently did – that Mr Dalton has worked in both the private and public sectors, which rather disproves his own point.
He noted the admittedly slow recruitment process we all bemoan in the civil service – undoubtedly not helped by the ‘streamlining’ of HR services over the years – which, he claims, has led to people turning down job offers in the agency. But he said nothing of those internal civil service candidates who have withdrawn their applications upon discovering the GoCo plot on the horizon.
That particular sword cuts both ways.
Recruitment hasn’t entirely dried up, though. There have been some senior appointments recently – including our chairman who, fresh from the now-privatised Royal Mail, wrote a report that made all the recommendations now being implemented. We also have two relatively new non-executive board members: one who was formerly chief executive of the only remaining publicly-owned rail franchise, now facing re-privatisation; and another who had previously led the company responsible for the infamous M6 toll road, which has proved to be a less than stellar financial success.
We will surely be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical about the reasons their particular expertise in privatisation and toll roads was sought, amid denials of any HA sell-off. We believe the privatisation agenda is abundantly clear. Major construction companies have been publicly and privately rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the largest remaining public sector infrastructure asset being up for grabs.
Instead of making our roads more efficient, the legacy we risk leaving by carving up our road network is one of inevitable disputes between private interests, and the equally inevitable tolling. Not only would this be catastrophic for tourism, industry and other road users, it would mean curtailing freedom of movement – and that could only exacerbate existing geographical and social divides. If this seems like a bleak outlook, that’s because it is. But there is still time to prevent it from happening.
Mark Dollar is an employee of the Highways Agency, and convenor of the PCS Union’s HA action group