BLOG: Council Budgets Are On The Road To Nowhere

The financial pressure on local authorities is soaring and across the UK, local government reform is hitting the headlines as councils react to growing service demands and reducing budgets.

In the same week the Government announced its Autumn Budget, devolution deals were announced for Buckinghamshire and North of Tyne which will see the existing council structures dissolved and replaced with new models.

The changes are radical but necessary as councils across the country explore all options to balance the books and ensure the services wanted and needed by residents continue to be provided.

In the recent budget Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced he would be allocating £420 million to repairing potholes on council-owned roads. Whilst welcome, the money needs to be spent in this financial year and it raises the question of whether more should be done to help councils prepare for problems in the first place, rather than react to them afterwards.

Investing in the future

In the instance of roads, the costs associated with poor surfaces, visibility or traffic management extend far beyond the financial. As well as money, time and even lives can be lost so it is vital to ensure they are managed efficiently.

For Highways England, which is responsible for the strategic road network, this means “planning for the long term” – one of four key objectives announced by Chief Executive Jim O’Sullivan in December last year.

It makes sense and reflects the age-old phrase, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. By investing in the roads and delivering surfaces and solutions of the highest quality which will be effective now and, in the future, it reduces the costs and disruption associated with maintenance going forward.

Highways England used this approach when tasked with updating the A38 in Derbyshire, used by 23,000 vehicles daily. The condition of the road was poor, with an ageing highway and localised surface defects which had caused potholes, deep ruts and heavy degrading of the white lining. Furthermore, the geometry, lack of street lighting and short slip roads contributed to poor visibility of the road layout ahead.

However rather than simply filling the potholes and patching up the paintwork, Highways England invested to deliver solutions that would help create a 20 year solution. Retro reflective studs were upgraded to Clearview’s SolarLite Active Road Studs; the white lining used WJ’s high visibility lane marking and an anti-skid road surface was applied.

The result was an award-winning scheme, designed to withstand the traffic and weather conditions over the longer term, reducing the costs and disruption associated with ongoing repairs.

The A38 is an example of “planning for the long term” and is an approach that local authorities should be replicating across their own roads. However, whilst the local councils will all be eager to deliver cost-effective solutions, there is a fundamental difference in their ability to do so. Funding.

Proactive rather than reactive

Highways England receives five-year funding grants from the Government whilst local authorities have their budgets allocated on an annual basis. The planning, procurement, operations and logistics process associated with major projects is time consuming and expensive. Coupled with the need to maintain existing roads and uncertainty surrounding long-term budgets, it is difficult for councils, in times of austerity, to effectively evaluate plans for the future.

At the annual Highways UK conference last week, this subject was touched upon by the Minster for Transport, Jesse Norman MP, who said he was discussing the possibility of replicating Highways England’s five-year funding settlements for local authorities. This would enable councils to better manage budgets and provide the opportunity to take on a more proactive role in tackling issues.

If approved and delivered carefully, this approach could not only transform the quality of roads across the UK, but also the fate of local authorities. Rather than allocating funds to patch up potholes and repair ruts in roads, entire networks could be overhauled to create long-lasting solutions that will withstand the test of time.

For local authorities, this could equate to a more cost-effective approach which saves on the costs associated with ad-hoc repairs and maintenance, whilst minimising disruption to driversers. Politically, it would prove advantageous; if you poll any resident on local issues, “potholes” or “roads” normally feature amongst the most common complaints.

Earlier this year the AA reported that pothole-related insurance claims for the first four months of 2018 exceeded the total amount for 2017. The claims are reflective of the condition of the roads, which in turn, reflect the budget constraints of local authorities.

With Northamptonshire County Council already under the control of Government inspectors and numerous other local authorities working hard to avoid a similar fate, it is clear the current system is not working. Prevention is always better than cure, but councils cannot make long-term plans on a short-term budget; the funding system needs to be reviewed urgently to guarantee a smooth road ahead for all concerned.