Maintaining the UK's 246,000 miles of roads is a herculean task, and one that has been rendered far more challenging by damage caused from a series of harsh winters, and severe disruption to maintenance works created by one of the wettest summers on record.
Many councils are struggling to cope with the repair backlog, particularly given the 27 per cent budget cuts they have to contend with and pressure to slash budgets further. The issue is becoming more acute as the Government and businesses identify improving transport infrastructure as a key driver for growth.
However, perhaps more concerning for councils and particularly for elected members, is that this twin battle against fiscal austerity and the natural elements is now being picked up by individual road users.
Recent research from May Gurney found that 41% of British adults feel improving local roads should be the top priority for local authorities - with highways’ repairs rated a higher priority than any other local authority improvement.* This chimes with a study commissioned by the GMB which showed that 30% of English roads now require repairs.
So how do local authorities address the seemingly intractable problem of maintaining, improving and building new roads at a time of severe budget constraint?
In my view there are three key opportunities that councils should consider - with each offering different benefits and solutions that can be tailored to the individual needs and attitudes of each community:
- Work with private sector providers to explore innovative ways to increase investment in highways infrastructure and maintenance
- Collaborate with other local authorities to drive economies of scale and standardisation
- Adopt new, more flexible and cost effective ways of working focused on outcomes
1. Private sector investment:
Unlocking growth, to stimulate the local and national economy, has to be a key priority. Many significant developments and projects are planned, but with no local authority funding available and developers reluctant to speculate and invest in the current economic climate, they are currently on hold. The private sector could play a significant role in kick-starting development through working in partnership with the authority and developer to fund and provide new infrastructure with the investment being recovered once the development comes on line.
Some councils have pioneered partnerships with the private sector and investors to fund road improvements. This has the considerable benefit of removing the need for council funding but comes with political sensitivity of seeing the introduction of some form of road tolls.
The M6 toll remains the UK's only privately funded and run public toll road, but this model works more widely for highways’ infrastructures such as bridges. Recently, ministers unveiled plans to introduce tolling on an expanded section of the A14 in Cambridgeshire as a way to fund repairs and carriageway expansion, seen by many as the start of a far wider trend.
While tolls may seem tempting for local authorities looking to improve transport infrastructure without having to draw further on council budgets, they’re highly controversial and are likely to be unpopular with the community, even if they bring an improved network as a result.
Finding ways to improve existing roads, clearing the backlog of repairs and delivering it all for less money is tough, but it’s exactly the sort of challenge that councils are good at rising to. Today they can, and should, also call on their private and third sector partners to help find new solutions to this seemingly intractable problem - how do you get more for less?
2. Collaboration between and with authorities
Councils have a long history of service innovation and many are looking beyond their own boundaries to find ways to reduce highways’ maintenance costs and thus boost the number of miles of road repaired and developed.
Working with other local authorities to develop regional highways plans, to carry out joint procurement of services and to share supply chain and repair programmes, may be a big emotional leap for councils that are elected to serve one area, but it can pay off handsomely.
It can save huge amounts of money as the economies of scale can really bring down the costs. It also benefits motorists and businesses, because it recognises that highways (particularly major routes) often pass through several local authority areas.
I’m fully behind the work being done by the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) in looking at ways that local authorities conduct their business. In particular looking at how alliances between authorities can be formed and also in developing standard forms of contract and specifications that will all help to drive efficiencies.
The recently introduced British Standard, BS11000, Collaborative Business Relationships, will also provide a useful tool and framework of how to develop and maintain collaborative working with a whole range of stakeholders, focusing on the new value that comes from working together, rather than independently.
One example of collaboration is the SE7, a partnership of seven local authorities in the South East of England, which, for example, has worked to improve winter gritting performance, by sharing stockpiles of salt and planning gritting routes together, so that crews continue to grit the length of the highway, rather than having to turn back at the county boundary, as they would traditionally have done.
3. Finding new ways of working:
One of the less politically contentious options is to ensure that the whole end to end service process from conception to completion is as efficient as possible and that unnecessary waste is removed. This requires the elimination of role duplication and the traditional “person to person” marking to provide a more responsive right first time service. Collaborative and integrated ways of working are essential to deliver this.
Moving away from a reactive to a more planned service has to be the goal that authorities should aspire to; this coupled with a robust needs-based approach to asset management and a preventative maintenance regime will deliver the outcomes of a safer and improving network.
In Northamptonshire, a joint venture between May Gurney and WSP (MGWSP) working for the County Council, has seen significant improvements as a result of adopting new ways of working. These include:
· first time permanent repairs to defects rising from 40 to 96%
· number of customer reports of potholes falling by 23%
· the numbers of insurance claims made against the Council for poor road surfaces have reduced by 48% on the previous 12 months, saving over £1m
· the area of roads receiving preventative maintenance surfacing treatments has increased by 46% from 2009/10
Northamptonshire and MGWSP introduced a new approach, the New Highways Maintenance Initiative (NHMI), which focused on moving from a reactive to a planned service by changing response times and intervention levels for defects and introducing preventative maintenance programmes. Rather than deal with the “worst-first”, priorities are determined on a “whole-life cost” basis and a larger share of the budget is used for preventative works in order to stop roads reaching failure point in the first pl