Essex road improvements set for delays as engineers leave for HS2

Road improvements in Essex are likely to be delayed due to eastern European workers leaving for major projects like HS2, a council officer has said.

Vicky Presland, head of design services, Essex Highways, told Essex County Council’s Place Services and Economic Growth last week that they’re struggling to hire new workers to improve roads in Essex after many of their experts from eastern Europe left.

The shortage of engineers means that a rise of £7.2million of capital funding for Local Highways Panels (LHP) – £200,000 more for each panel, each year, for the next three years – has not been fully utilised.

All 12 borough, city and districts in Essex areas have the panels and they are responsible for making recommendations for improvements such as traffic signalling, crossing facilities and road safety schemes such as altering junction layouts.

Miss Presland highlighted the “worst staff shortages since the 1990s” for engineers partly as a result of COVID and Brexit.

She said: “There are just not enough engineering staff to go around at the moment.

“I know the lorry drivers and staff shortages are hitting headlines, but it is the same in the engineering world.

“Some of the roles that are out on the website, we’re not even getting any applicants for. So as a consequence of that is we will struggle to deliver that kind of increase in the LHP budget.”

The lack of engineers means that much of the budget allocated over the next three years cannot be spent – which could include safety improvements.

She added: “I know people don’t want to hear it but we are finding extremely difficult to recruit at the moment.

“So the increase in the local highways panel budget in the March budget was probably music to your ears but actually was it unexpected for us so we were caught on the back foot.

“Trying to increase that resource in the kind of staffing market that we’re currently in is extremely difficult.”

Councillor Lee Scordis, (Lab, Abbey), who is a member of the committee, said after the meeting: “It wasn’t mentioned in the meeting but Brexit has had a huge impact.

“In that time we have not trained enough engineers as a country as well.

“There is a bit of both and it shows we weren’t prepared.

“It means that people are going to be waiting later and longer for the scheme to be completed and hopefully fingers crossed we won’t be waiting longer for repairs but I think it’s likely we will be.”

An Essex Highways spokesperson said: “There is a challenge around recruiting across the industry at the moment, mainly because of the buoyancy of the civil engineering sector in the south east with projects like HS2 ramping up and taking on a lot of engineering staff.

“Essex Highways is not in a position to speculate how much of an impact Brexit has had on the situation.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter