The Strand

BLOG: “It’s been busy, challenging and rewarding”

Five months into her role as Liverpool City Council’s Interim Chief Highways Officer, Karen Agbabiaka talks about the changes she’s making and the road ahead for Liverpool…

Karen has been tasked with overhauling the city’s approach to highways, in the wake of the Best Value report. With three decades of experience under her belt, she’s more than qualified to get Liverpool moving in the right direction.

But in a city as complex as ours, it was never going to be an easy ride. ‘Bumps’ in the road include the collapse of the contractors behind Lime Street, a key part of the £47 million ‘City Centre Connectivity Scheme’. Yet as phase one of The Strand finishes this week, the city is starting to motor – and Karen is receiving plaudits for the changes she’s overseeing.

How have you found the job so far?
Extremely busy and challenging. We’ve had another contractor go into administration, leaving roadworks incomplete. It’s a challenge to ensure highways are safe and people can move across the city. Challenging too, to resolve all the contractual and legal elements.

This isn’t a ‘Liverpool’ problem – we did all the checks and procured the Lime Street contractors properly. It’s an industry-wide issue. With Covid and Brexit, the industry is really struggling. The cost of materials is going up, there is a shortage of staff. Initially, when Covid happened, there was a boom – with people not on the roads, local authorities used that time to get work done. We’re now in a lull. Brexit has affected the construction industry with workers having gone back to Europe, too.

What keeps you awake at night?
Making sure Lime Street is safe and we’re able to open the area up as much as possible. We’ve appointed a new contractor – HA Civils – to make Lime Street safe, secure and clean in time for Remembrance Sunday and the Christmas shopping period.

I had an inkling the Lime Street contractors were in trouble, so I put things in place to protect the city, just in case. And then, when it materialised, we put our action plan in place. Understanding risks and mitigating them keeps you ahead of the curve.

When you come into the city, Lime Street is what you see straightaway, so it’s disappointing the contractors weren’t able to complete. Next steps, is to get the Christmas market up and running, followed by a review of the schemes, as requested by Mayor Joanne and the cabinet member (Cllr Dan Barrington).

What are you most proud of?
The fact that The Strand is now complete – with only the cycle lanes to open. It’s a fantastic piece of public realm, it’s stunning. To have segregated cycle lanes and such vast public realm, but also to be able to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles too, it’s a good balance.

We need to get used to sharing our roads with cyclists and pedestrians in Liverpool – that’s something I’m hoping we will do, like other major cities have. We need to encourage people out of their cars. Cycling and active travel are going to be our safest and quickest way of getting from A to B and will also contribute to getting Liverpool to ‘net zero’ by 2030.
It’s also been rewarding to get to know staff and some of the issues they face and to try to resolve these issues. They’ve been through difficult times. Staff are nice and friendly, and all they want to do is their best for Liverpool.

As a Londoner, do you feel Liverpool lags behind when it comes to active travel?

Definitely. It’s also because legislation hasn’t allowed it. The majority of legislation is for London. This ‘levelling up’ agenda – I didn’t quite appreciate it until I came to work here, the constraints on the things we can do. It’s hindering our progress. There have been discussions with the Department of Transport and the plan is to address it next year, so we have more control over our highways.

Tell us how you ended up in this industry…?

I started as a technician and worked my way up. I went to college and then university on day release. I am a real advocate for apprentices, as I’ve gone through it and can see the benefits of hands-on experience. It puts you way ahead of those who go down the traditional route. Engineering is a visual learning approach – you need to see it in action.

Have you experienced barriers in work, because of being a woman and being black?

I have – many times. I suppose I’m quite a strong individual, because if I wasn’t, I would have given up. In my first job, I experienced sexism badly. I worked for an architectural engineering firm, and literally went home crying. I resigned and decided I’m never going to let any person or organisation do that to me again. If I wanted to work in the industry, I would need a thick skin.

From then on, I would draw a line and not let anyone cross it. I can take banter – my line is quite high! Other women maybe can’t, or won’t, but that’s my line and I’m content with it. I often sit in rooms and I’m the only female and black person. It doesn’t bother me anymore, I just get on with it. I know what I’m capable of.

One of the most important things is to have the support of your employer. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, because employers don’t know they need to have your back. There are not many black women in the industry – although more women are coming through – there’s not always that support. But Liverpool has been really supportive.

What are your impressions of the city?

Liverpool is a beautiful city. I love the architecture. It’s a fantastic city, the people are really welcoming.

Liverpool Waterfront