With budgets under pressure and a 14-year maintenance backlog, councils and contractors are exploring new and radical solutions for local networks.
It is said that people who don’t ask don’t get, and contractors have long had little to show for their requests for more investment in local roads maintenance.
They are not alone. Council highways departments, materials producers, motoring organisations and road safety campaigners have also made repeated calls.
The problem is one of priorities.
Budget cuts have forced councils to make difficult decisions over spending, with expensive services such as social care often pushing maintenance to the back of the queue, despite growing backlogs of work.
So with no obvious way to secure more resources, could the industry instead press for better use of the money councils do have to maintain roads, bridges, pavements and street lights?
The government has allotted £5.8bn to English councils for local roads for 2015-21, although this allocation is only indicative and councils may spend this on anything they please.
“You can’t apply asset management unless you know what you’ve got and what condition it is in. So you need good surveys and processes”
Matthew Lugg, Mouchel
That sum is not far off the £6bn that Highways England has to maintain its motorways and trunk roads over the same period. But with local roads accounting for 98 per cent of the network by length, this lopsided investment is a perennial source of grievance across local government.
There is abundant evidence of the parlous state of local roads.
The Urban Transport Group, which represents metropolitan transport authorities, said in a recent report that in these authorities’ areas alone there were 5,500 km of local roads in urgent need of repair in 2014.
Generic roads Highways England motorway roads safety infrastructure worker 1
This compared with just 220 km of Highways England’s roads requiring urgent attention, even though the latter received 2.7 times as much maintenance spend per kilometre than local authority-managed main roads – and 15.9 times as much as local unclassified roads (minor roads and lanes).
The RAC Foundation’s 2015 report, The Condition of England’s Local Roads and How They are Funded, revealed that the average timeframe between resurfacings ranged from 20 years for main roads in London to 100 years for unclassified roads elsewhere.
This year, the Asphalt Industry Alliance’s annual Alarm survey found a £791m shortfall in maintenance budgets in England and Wales, which would take 14 years to clear at current rates, with local roads of all kinds resurfaced on average every 57 years.
The survey found that 2.19m potholes were filled in during 2015 – with each costing £53 as part of a planned maintenance programme, rising to £64 as a one-off reactive repair.
Local vs Highways England roads infographic
Planned maintenance is clearly better value than traditional reactive repairs. But in order to plan such programmes, authorities need to know what’s there in the first place.
This requires inventories of highways systems, where the aim is to conserve each asset rather than patch it up occasionally.
But how can highways managers and their contractors do this?
What planned maintenance demands
The government-backed Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) seeks, among other things, to encourage asset management and planned maintenance, with the amount of funding allocated being partly dependent on councils’ progress on this front.
“I know for a fact there are contracts with only one bidder that still get awarded… Some contracts are not fit for purpose”
Matthew Lugg, Mouchel
Matthew Lugg, director of public services at Mouchel and formerly highways director at Leicestershire County Council, helped to devise the HMEP. “The approach promoted by HMEP to support local authorities now shows clear evidence that it works; if local authorities adopt traditional ways of doing things [instead], they can only go so far,” he explains.
So why not do it? “There is a political problem that some councillors see it as removing their decisions on which roads should be repaired, as maintenance would be driven by asset management plans rather than by local political decisions,” Mr Lugg says.
“It also needs good information; you can’t apply asset management unless you know what you’ve got and what condition it is in. So you need good condition surveys and prioritisation processes.”
Generic roads Highways England motorway roads infrastructure worker maintenance 1
Getting the best out of asset management requires innovation and collaboration between council and contractor. But some councils reserve work for in-house teams, while others do not get the best out of bidders, Mr Lugg suggests. “I know for a fact there are contracts with only one bidder that still get awarded,” he says.
“There is scope to use better procurement practice and to ensure the contractor is incentivised, that there is good collaboration through the supply chain, and that the contract is long enough to allow for the ability to innovate. Some contracts are not fit for purpose.”
“We also need some degree of contract standardisation, which leads to greater efficiency and scale”
Geoff Allister, Highways Term Maintenance Association
Geoff Allister, executive director of the contractors’ body the Highways Term Maintenance Association, says money could be made to go further by “innovations in processes and materials”.
He says: “The materials used must depend on circumstances and you can’t say one material or another is necessarily ‘best’, but in the past people tended to use the same material everywhere. We also need some degree of contract standardisation, which leads to greater efficiency and scale.”
Councils’ critical mass
Mr Allister thinks councils should work together when awarding highway contracts to achieve a critical mass and reap economies of scale.
Highways are the responsibility of a hotchpotch of councils that for historic reasons vary from those with thousands of kilometres of roads, such as Devon and North Yorkshire, to small councils like Rutland and Hartlepool.
One highways professional says: “There are too many highway authorities and I think you need a critical mass of 5,000 km to make it work.”
Devon County Council head of highways, capital development and waste management David Whitton works in one such collaborative arrangement with South West Highways – a joint venture of Colas and Ringway.
“We’ve moved from the traditional client and contractor split and gone for what we call a virtual joint venture, which we means we work together to deploy the aggregated resources of the council and contractor,” he explains.
“Filling potholes is like dealing with a hole in the roof by buying buckets to collect water. We have to change the mindset”
Parvis Khansari, Wiltshire Council
“All the work is done by the contractor but we will work together on highway inspections, policy reviews and programme development, which gives us greater flexibility.”
This ‘virtual JV’ has produced annual savings of 3-4 per cent since 2012 and the approach could be extended to a combined contract for Devon, Somerset and Plymouth due to be let from April 2017.
Wiltshire Council director of highways and transportation Parvis Khansari is also an enthusiast for the HMEP’s focus asset management approach. “It’s a leadership issue to get it accepted that we need planned rather than reactive maintenance, as it’s a waste of resources to just fill potholes,” he says.
“I use the analogy that filling potholes is like dealing with a hole in the roof by buying buckets to collect water. We have to change the mindset.”
AIA director David Weeks says that, with pleas for more money proving futile, councils should borrow to support asset management plans so they could do work that is initially more costly but which gives better overall value.
“It costs less in the long term to strip and resurface a road than it does to endlessly fill potholes in it,” he says.
Filling a pothole costs about 20 times as much as resurfacing, but with the latter “you are covering a larger area so the upfront cost is higher, but there are demonstrable savings for local authorities if they did that”, Mr Weeks says.
A number of more radical ideas are emerging across the country.
Roads country local track lane maintenance
Devon has taken the unusual step of enlisting members of the public to repair roads. Mr Whitton says: “We will tell parish councils, and even groups of individuals, they can have the money we would spend plus anything they can raise and we will train them in simple road repairs and supply some materials.
“Once they have the repair done we will inspect it and take on liability, so our insurers and legal people are happy.”
More radical still is the suggestion that some minor roads should be abandoned altogether.
The Highways Act 1980 specifies that even the most obscure public roads must be maintained, but Mr Lugg says some should be dropped from maintenance schedules.
He says: “Even if a rural road is used only by occasional agricultural vehicles, it has to be maintained as though it were used by regular traffic, whereas Australia has stone roads which are suitable for farm vehicles and hardly anyone else uses them.”
Maintaining the highways network in the style to which it has been accustomed may prove impossible with shrinking budgets.
The HMEP’s approach of asset management, larger contracts and collaboration may be a relatively painless way forward if councillors can grasp it.