Now Sheffield’s roads have been transformed into some the best in the country thanks to the first five years of the Streets Ahead programme rolled out by contractor Amey, working with Sheffield City Council.
In addition, the huge drive to radically upgrade the city’s infrastructure has resulted in the resurfacing of pavements, improvements to bridges and other highway structures and a pioneering switch to a centrally controlled LED street lighting network.
The efforts so far – the whole upgrade and maintenance programme stretches over 25 years at a cost of £2.2bn – have been a mammoth undertaking for Amey. During this initial five-year phase, they have directly employed 700 staff in Sheffield, mainly based at Olive Grove, plus a significant supply chain of over 160 companies. At the height of activity, the daily headcount was over 1,200 people who were delivering the Streets Ahead contract for Sheffield.
Most of Amey’s staff live and work in the city and are entitled and encouraged to take one paid day per year to work on a community project. Over the past five years, employees have given their time to support a huge variety of initiatives which have benefited local communities, charities and individuals.
Streets Ahead Business Director, Rob Allen, accepts there have been challenges along the way, but points to the scale and complexity of the contract – and ultimately, the results.
“I think we have changed the city significantly for the better,” he says. “People forget how bad the roads were five years ago, Sheffield was called ‘Pothole City’ for a long time.
“Yes, there have been difficulties and, yes, there’s been some disruption and frustration, but if you step back and consider how we have delivered the changes across the city, it has been a phenomenal effort and I think many residents recognise this.
“The whole Streets Ahead team should be proud of its achievements.”
Amey was selected by Sheffield City Council to deliver the Streets Ahead contract in July 2012 and started work in the August.
Sheffield was one of only five highways maintenance contracts of this nature to be approved by the Government. The others were in Portsmouth, Birmingham (also to be delivered by Amey), Hounslow in London and the Isle of Wight.
A zonal approach was taken in Sheffield to get to grips with the crumbling infrastructure. Main roads comprised 27 A zones, local and less busy roads, usually in residential areas, formed 81 B zones.
In practice, there was some overlap as Amey sought to minimise the impact of disruption and congestion.
“We have always tried to be as efficient as possible,” says Rob. “The council was adamant that disruption should be kept to a minimum, despite it being such a big infrastructure programme.
“We needed to keep the city moving for those who live and work here. Much of our work would not have been possible without the support of the business community, who anticipate the economic benefits that this work brings”
Richard Wright, Executive Director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said the improvements have allowed the city to be far more confident in attracting investment: “The first five years of the Streets Ahead programme has seen a much-needed investment to upgrade the city’s highways infrastructure.
“Five years ago, the state of our roads was a barrier to investment and it is no coincidence that, now they have improved, Sheffield has one of the longest potential pipelines of inward investment for many years.
“Good transport infrastructure does not guarantee economic success but poor infrastructure is a real barrier. Sheffield has once again shown it can take innovative approaches to solving problems.”
Against this background, some 65% to 70% of the roads and pavements in Sheffield have now been resurfaced – that’s around 727 miles of road and 1,450 miles of pavement.
Roads and pavements in the worst condition were generally tackled under the first – major capital investment – phase of Streets Ahead.
Over the remaining 20 years of the contract, Amey will be maintaining the city’s infrastructure to a good standard. This means that the road resurfacing programme will continue (the next 5 years still seeing a large amount of resurfacing work) with the city’s roads being assessed through regular inspections and condition surveys.
Rob takes pride in the results so far.
Last year Sheffield City Council won an award after a National Highways and Transport Survey highlighted the biggest overall improvement in satisfaction levels over 10 years and thanks to Streets Ahead, satisfaction with the condition of Sheffield’s roads has doubled since 2010.
And despite the sheer volume of Streets Ahead work, another survey undertaken by the Department for Transport in 2016, showed that there are 35 million more miles travelled on the city’s roads and the average delay in journey times in Sheffield reduced whilst getting worse in other parts of the country.
Every day for the past five years more than a mile of footway and over half a mile road was being resurfaced.
But it was not just about arriving on site and delivering the work, says Rob.
“Beforehand there was a comprehensive process to identify the work required.
“We held roadshows for local people where we shared the planned programme of works with residents and businesses, and our community stewards attended community assemblies and contacted councillors and MPs to keep them updated.”
The information blitz extended to delivering more than 1.3m leaflets, visiting 262 schools and holding 212 roadshows.
Infrastructure treatment varied according to its condition. In the vast majority of cases, resurfacing was successful, but not every issue could be picked up in preliminary core testing of hundreds of miles of roads.
“Inevitably there have been areas of work we have had to redo but it is an extremely small level of failure, less than 0.5% of all surfacing completed. This has arisen where we have done resurfacing and then found a substructure problem that requires deeper treatment.”
Amey has always aimed to adapt to conditions – and circumstances.
When Sheffield staged, the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in the summer of 2014, resurfacing of some roads in the north of the city being used by riders was brought forward by a year.
“It was in collaboration with the council,” says Rob. “We worked together to make sure Sheffield was seen at its best, to help put the city on the map.”
Yet roads and pavements are only part – if a highly visible one – of Streets Ahead.
Another huge element is street lighting. By the end of the five years, more than 65,000 LED street lights and 55,000 columns have been installed, replacing less efficient and more expensive sodium lanterns.
As a result, Sheffield is the first city in the UK to switch completely to LED for its street lights – and one of the first in the world.
Again, the changeover was far from straightforward.
There were up to 80 different type of LED lantern – each giving a different spread of light – to choose from depending on the height of the column and the lighting levels needed.
Keeping pace with improvements in technology over the five years meant that by the end, a third generation of lantern was being used.
Complex design work had to cover connecting with existing underground electrical infrastructure and liaising with power companies; new holes were dug so that street lighting column bases could be relocated to the back of footpath to make them less of an obstacle.
“It has been a big challenge because of the complexities and the timescale. There was a lot of design work and a lot of excavations for columns which caused a level of disruption for which I apologise.
“It was an extremely tight programme but this really is a lighting system that is pushing the boundaries in terms of generating clearer, whiter and better defined street light across the city.”
The most contentious part of Streets Ahead has been the street tree replacement programme.
Around 5,500 street trees that are dead, dying, diseased, decaying or causing problems such as roots lifting footpaths to create obstacles for disabled people or people with pushchairs or where roots are damaging properties and the highway (missing kerbs, structures etc.) have been replaced.
The company’s own arboriculturalists inspect street trees and, in some cases, have to make difficult decisions, says Rob. But it is always in the interests of ensuring a sustainable tree landscape for generations to come. The proposed tree replacements are then submitted to the Council for their review and approval.
“We look at the overall street scene and the age profile of the trees and the damage caused by some of them.
“And whilst we would always prefer to leave them in, unfortunately, there are a lot of trees in the city that are the wrong species for the location and environment. They have had very little attention in previous years.
“We are committed to maintaining the tree stock in Sheffield. Everything we take out is replaced. Previously if a tree was taken out, it stayed out. This was common in many cities across the UK. Now we are planting more than we take out.
“We recognise the passion surrounding the trees, but we have to deliver the highways contract.
“It’s frustrating that there is lots of misinformation out there, and I wish things had not escalated to the point where clear lines have been drawn.
“In hindsight, perhaps we could have been clearer in communicating the messages about this part of the programme. We have learnt some hard lessons but this has helped frame our approach as we move forward.”
Another major task in the first five years of Streets Ahead was to replace 3,208 gullies and drainage systems.
“There is a lot of clever stuff going on underground that people don’t see.”
Some 1,314 bridges, retaining walls and other structures were repaired. Designing and building a solution after a major landslip on the A57 near Crosspool was an early challenge which, we provided an innovative solution for, including building a large retaining wall and stabilising the hillside with rock anchors.
The city’s traffic lights are also undergoing replacement, in the first five years, new, more efficient traffic lights have been installed at 123 sites. This programme will continue over the course of the contract.
All this work was taking place alongside Amey’s regular maintenance tasks, such as street cleaning, grass cutting, tree maintenance and gritting of the highway during winter.
“It has been like a jigsaw coming together,” says Rob.
“The journey has been tough at times, but that’s the nature of the beast. If you work on this scale in an urban environment you are going to see some disruption to residents and businesses. Trying to keep that disruption to a minimum has been a priority.
He adds “The investment doesn’t stop after five years. There is still work to be done. We have still got surfacing crews working across the city, night and day. The infrastructure will continue to be assessed and targeted work will be done as part of a cycle of investment.
“Streets Ahead was put in place by the city council to help generate major investment in the city, to create an infrastructure that is fit for purpose and to encourage economic growth. The improvements delivered over the past five years and looking at the extent of what has been achieved, I think we’re certainly on the right road to success.”