Thursday 16 October 2014

Highway Maintenance: Do It Yourself

You might have caught the news story about Devon County Council's plans to have volunteers filling in potholes on their road network, but of course, there is a proper story behind the headlines.

This week's post was nearly another one about being on strike (for a cost of living pay rise after years of freezes) which was called for yesterday for many of us in the public sector and in my case, working for a council. As it turned out, the strike was suspended to consider a new offer and so perhaps more on that in the near future. There is a link with the Devon story of course!

So, the headline with all of this is that Devon County Council is looking at making substantial funding cuts, including £3.4 million from its 2015/16 highway maintenance budget. I would state that Devon CC talks about "savings" - let's call them what they are - cuts. These cuts are being forced on highway authorities because of the wider programme of local government cuts being imposed by the Government.

Highway maintenance has traditionally been a service which is at the front line of being cut and you can track the decline over decades, it is just the most recent rounds have been especially harsh since the current mob took power in 2010. Devon CC is reckoned by the Western Morning News as having the largest highway network of any UK authority costing £1 billion a year to maintain and certainly the asset list is impressive for a relatively sparsely populated county (and hence relative lack of council tax payers!).

Funding for highway maintenance is complicated, but in essence, local councils get about 75% (and falling) of their funding from Central Government and the rest is made up with council tax. Capital works are a different kettle of fish which I won't deal with here. The vast majority of this maintenance funding is not ring fenced (other than the politically motivated pothole fund) and so if central funding is cut (as it has been since 2010), then highway authorities have some choices;
  • Cut services
  • Raise income levels through charges
  • Increase council tax
Of course, raising council tax is a vote loser and the Government has connived to make this difficult by bribing councils with extra cash for freezing it and requiring a local referendum to raise it above 2% (which of course costs to set up!). Besides which, who wants to vote to pay more tax? There are lots of ways income can be raised, essentially by charging for services (where permissible in legislation) which includes little things like charging developers for formal planning advice before a planning application is made and the headline grabbing parking debate (no, I am not getting into that again - yet).

So, in common with councils up and down the country, Devon CC is undertaking a consultation on its proposed service cuts framed in its "tough choices" slogan (doublespeak if I have ever heard it). Highways has its own consultation which you may wish to respond to of course. Areas of the highway services identified for cuts are as follows;
  • Cuts to the winter service (gritting, snow clearance etc) fleet and gritting/ snow clearing routes - local grit bins no longer used, but local groups could pay to restock them;
  • Sale of the county's 4 picnic sites;
  • Grass cutting to be reduced to just safety critical areas (visibility and so on);
  • Weed killing of noxious weeds to end;
  • Reduction of Lengthsmen service (a traditional highway service which keeps drainage grips clear and does minor things as they are picked up - good old fashioned and cost-effective preventative work);
  • Reduce front-line area staffing by a fifth - these people act as liaison with local people, parish/ town councils and councillors etc

There isn't actually a mention of people filling in their own potholes in the consultation, but there are discussions about community wardens (unpaid volunteers) picking up some of the slack in a similar way to an existing system of volunteers who help with snow clearance in the county. For a very rural county the snow warden scheme makes sense and as with other parts of the country with similar arrangements (which have been in place for decades) it keeps isolated communities accessible. This story has also been picked up with a cycling spin on and by the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT).

The thing about this is that highway authorities have a legal duty to maintain their highway network, although there is nothing to stop them using volunteers (my own employer has a small network of volunteers who act as extra ears and eyes and that is no bad thing). However, volunteers need to be organised, trained and managed. In order to to be able to defend against claims an authority needs to keep records of works (to show they have acted reasonably) and so as a bare minimum, someone being paid to do a job at least has some basic financial motivation to so their job.

Where it is a local person simply phoning in faults, the only organisation needed is to make sure they have the right phone number and the fault gets logged. When we get into people potentially undertaking works, then it is a whole different matter. Roadworkers (paid people) whether contractors or direct highways staff have to be trained in techniques, tools and health & safety to be either deemed competent or to comply with basic law. Volunteers doing work need the same and that takes resources and someone employed to manage them. That is not intended to be disparaging about volunteers at all.

Once we are into pothole repairs, we are into people working on live carriageways - potentially in a lone working situation. Repairing a pothole could involved bunging a bag of deferred (cold) set asphalt into a hole (subject to the person having been trained in manual handling and the correct risk assessments being in place), but a proper job will invariably involved cutting out the road and doing a proper job with hot materials and machinery - that is not something a resident could do.

No, in my view, this is just a headline which might translate into a little extra being done by motivated residents, but with similar arrangements to the snow warden scheme. The news stories out there do talk about the cuts, but actually, the scale of the cuts should be the headline and this is being repeated up and down the country. Staggeringly, we are being told by David Cameron that if the Conservatives are elected in 2015, they will cut taxes. From a highway maintenance point of view, this is despite a backlog of at least £12 billion.

For those of us involved, it is a very depressing time (as it is for people in child services, education, libraries and all of the other services provided by councils). Devon is a microcosm of the wider cuts agenda and with highway maintenance, they appear to be targeting the "easier" areas for cuts. But, ignore the basics like dealing with weeds and keeping drainage grips clear and problems are magnified in the future. The Asphalt Industry Alliance suggests that reactive maintenance costs 20 times more per square metre than preventative work.

So, the choice is yours. Either have a properly trained and motivated highways workforce which you have to pay for, or do it yourself. Perhaps while you are at it, you could also do a bit of policing and if you really have time, warm up by volunteering in your local library to keep it open.


  1. Devon does indeed have a dense network of roads, even denser outside the large relatively roadless areas of Dartmoor and Exmoor. The hyperbole used to be that the county had more roads than Belgium. Regardless of the truth of this, the county's pretty good for the "quiet rural roads" that make for good leisure cycling, albeit with plenty of hills. Even in the days of a full highways budget, though, you'd come across lanes with the strip of grass down the middle, or the tarmac worn away to the hardcore, or with an accompaniment of overgrown hedgerows.

    1. Never cycled in Devon, but know what you mean - some roads little more than tracks - but still need some work from time to time of course.

  2. "Highway maintenance has traditionally been a service which is at the front line of being cut and you can track the decline over decades..."
    It'd be interesting to know if there's been any year between, say, 1979 and now, when local authority highway maintenance budgets haven't been subject to some cut or other. Let's face it, everyone in the industry is aware of this 'tradition'. It's the Cinderella service if ever there was one.

    "For those of us involved, it is a very depressing time (as it is for people in child services, education, libraries and all of the other services provided by councils)".
    But they'll at least have public sympathy and backing of concerned parents, etc. No-one gives a damn about highway maintenance until their pride and joy drives into the pothole that was once the High Street and wrecks its suspension. Even then it's just 'lawyers at dawn' and no understanding or care about why the road got to that state.

    Andy R.