Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (RM 17)


  The Civil Engineering Contractors Association—CECA—is a trade association representing civil engineering contractors, of all sizes, based throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Its members' workload constitutes the majority of the output of all civil engineering work in Great Britain, currently valued at over £12 billion including the cost of materials incorporated in the works. Total highway maintenance, ranging from major structural repairs and renewals to routine and winter maintenance, is one of the largest components of that figure, accounting for not far short of a quarter of the total.

  That reckoning includes highway maintenance work by local authority direct labour organisations as well as by contractors, and it also includes work on local authority non-principal roads, which are not included in the Committee's present inquiry.

  CECA is disappointed by this omission, which it presumes to have been made on the grounds that, although motorways, trunk roads and other principal roads account for only 13 per cent of total public road length in England, or 14 per cent in the whole of Great Britain, they carry 64 per cent of all road traffic measured in vehicle kilometres and—which is of the greatest importance for the maintenance condition of roads—85 per cent of all traffic by goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight. However, judging by present methods of assessment employed in England and Wales, some of the worst deterioration in road maintenance condition, adding to the total maintenance backlog that has been growing almost continuously for the past two decades, is reported in respect of categories of road that are excluded from the inquiry.


  The reliability of transport services, a key determinant of the demand for them, depends heavily on the maintenance condition of the infrastructure required to support those services. For many years, however, Britain has been severely neglectful of the condition of its transport infrastructure, including its roads, and this has lead to a mounting catalogue of interruptions to traffic.

  For the present, the principal assessment of the condition of the nation's road networks is the annual National Road Maintenance Condition Survey (NRMCS) for England and Wales, which takes as its base the condition of each element of the total network as it was recorded in 1977.

  However, for some time the results of this survey has been regarded with some scepticism by contractors, when they have seen it suggested that, whilst there has been a continuing deterioration in the average condition of all roads, there have been overall improvements in the condition of certain categories, principally trunk roads from the mid-1980s until 1977, and both rural principal and rural classified roads almost continuously through the 1990s, which they cannot reconcile with the decline in the volume of work that they have been carrying out on those roads, and with other indicators.

  For example, CECA has noted the findings of successive Local Transport Surveys carried out by the Institution of Civil Engineers among local authority engineers. In the ICE's 1999 survey, 86 per cent of local authority respondents indicated that the backlog of maintenance on the roads for which they were directly responsible had increased over the previous 12 months, whereas only three per cent reported a decrease. These figures are not indicative of any sudden recent shift, but of the continuation of an already marked decline. The corresponding proportions in the 1998 survey were 87 per cent and one per cent, and in December 1997 they were 92 per cent and two per cent.

  Although this seems most unlikely, it has even been suggested, from time to time, that there could have been some political manipulation of the results of the NRMCS. A more likely explanation is that some of the findings have been affected by changed criteria, reduced sampling, and "missing" returns from some authorities. However, these are matters in respect of which the survey reports, the style of which has shown quite considerable variation from year to year, have been far from transparent.

  Thus, for whatever reason, there is presently a lack of confidence in the results of the NRMCS; and, in CECA's estimation, this situation will not be improved until responsibility for the survey is transferred to an independent Roads Inspector, that would first of all reassess methods of measuring the condition of roads. This exercise should take account of the views not only of highway authorities but also of all stakeholders, including contractors and consulting engineers, and also the road haulage industry and motoring organisations. It should pay close attention to standards and criteria established in other countries. This proposal is repeated below, in the statement of CECA's views on further steps to be taken to bring British roads up to the best possible standard.


  If there has been deterioration in the overall maintenance condition of roads since the original NRMCS benchmarks were set in 1977, that implies that for more than two decades the steps taken by British highway authorities to ensure that roads are kept in good repair have been inadequate.

  To a considerable extent, this has been a matter of inadequate funding, both by central government and from local authority revenues, lagging well behind the growth of traffic, and especially that of the volume of goods vehicle traffic, described in the latest NRMCS report as "responsible for virtually all pavement wear".

  CECA would draw attention to a series of four charts included in the 1999 NRMCS report that compare road condition as recorded by the survey, the volume of goods vehicle traffic, and the level of maintenance expenditure measured at constant prices, for trunk, principal and non-principal roads. They show that, in England:

    —  for trunk roads, maintenance spending rose by more than the growth in goods traffic up to 1993-94, when it reached around 130 per cent above the 1977-78 level; but then it fell by around 60 per cent over the next three years, before showing a marginal recovery in 1997-98

    —  for principal roads, maintenance spending broadly kept pace with goods traffic growth to 1992-93, showed a relatively sharp increase in 1993-94, but since then has been in continuous decline, to stand at under 80 per cent of the 1977-78 level in 1997-98.

  In CECA's view, it is imperative, looking to the future, and once the present maintenance backlog is cleared, the index of real spending on road maintenance should at least match the index of goods traffic, for each broad class of road.

  Part of the problem with highway maintenance in the past has been that actual expenditure has frequently been less than what was planned or intended. In particular, at local government level it has been not uncommon, in periods of financial stringency, for highways budgets to be "raided" to obtain additional resources for so-called "front line services", that have ranked higher in the estimation of local taxpayers and those who represent them.

  More recently, however, it has appeared that, at both national and local level, the public has become much more concerned about the condition of roads, relative to that of other public services, and this shift in public opinion has been met by a very welcome positive response by the Government, and by a growing number of local authorities.

  It is a major advance that the Government has now admitted the existence of a substantial backlog of highway maintenance and, within its Ten Year Plan for transport published in July 2000, has committed itself to providing sufficient resources first to cure all backlog within the next ten years, then to prevent a recurrence.

  Where the maintenance of both strategic and local roads in England is concerned, it has already reversed the decline in central government funding. For local roads, it has taken steps to enable local highway authorities to plan ahead with greater certainty, replacing the former annual cycle of bids for central funding with the new regime of five-year Local Transport Plans, that include maintenance of existing assets as well as improvements to transport infrastructure and services.

  What is good news for authorities in this connection is also good for contractors. If contractors are to deliver the best value for money spent on maintenance, they need firmer indications of future spending, with longer time horizons, in order that they may better marshal the resources needed to plan and carry out the work. Too often in the past wide variations in transport infrastructure operators' expenditure on maintenance of existing assets has led to considerable variations in contractors' workload, and have made it difficult for them to promote careers in civil engineering, and not only recruit but also retain professional staff and skilled operatives.


  However, both curing the backlog, and ensuring that it does not re-emerge in the future, is not just a matter of spending more heavily than before. As is being demonstrated in both the roads and rail sectors, there is considerable scope for developing more efficient regimes for assessing maintenance requirements, and for both managing and executing the necessary work.

  In every case, this should be a co-operative process, between the network operator and service providers, including contractors and also consulting engineers. CECA is always willing to participate in this process, and has established regular liaison arrangements with the main network operators for this purpose.

  In the roads sector, one necessary preliminary to these improvements, that has not been tackled up to now, is the establishment of an agreed set of criteria or standards against which the maintenance condition of all roads may be measured. As indicated earlier, this is a task that CECA considers should be delegated to an independent Roads Inspector, taking account of the views of all stakeholders, and of experience in other countries.

  From creating new standards for the measurement of maintenance condition it is a very short step to establish key performance indicators for both the management and execution of highway maintenance, which are essential for the next generation of contracts. In CECA's view, it is important that these should be principally "user-based", so the road haulage industry and motorists' organisations must be involved in the selection process.

  These matters must be addressed with much more urgency than has been evident in the recent past. The Committee should recognise that, over a period of several years, there has been extensive experimentation with new arrangements, and new forms of contract, for the management and execution of maintenance of strategic roads in England, involving changing roles and changing allocations of risk and responsibility between the Highways Agency as client, the maintenance contractors, and the consulting engineers.

  Even so, there has been no progress yet towards the concept of privately financed maintain and operate contracts that was flagged up in the July 1998 integrated transport and roads White Papers, and is mentioned again in the Ten Year Plan. Contractors remain interested to explore this idea, but this should happen sooner rather than later, for the overriding priority, in the interests of value for money, is to get back to a more stable framework after several years of experimentation.

  Similar considerations apply where local roads are concerned. Here the major concern is with the replacement of the former requirements for Compulsory Competitive Tendering, latterly extended to the provision of construction-related professional services including highways engineering—and resulting in the "externalisation" of some authorities' highways engineering departments as well as direct labour organisations—with "best value" requirements. CECA regrets that it is taking a considerable time for authorities to work out how to meet these requirements where highway maintenance is concerned, and they appear to be receiving relatively little guidance from the centre. This is a matter that needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

  When considering new forms of contractual arrangement, for maintenance of either strategic or local roads, it is essential to try to balance different interests in order to secure the best overall value. CECA makes this point principally because of a concern that some clients, including some highway authorities, are being unduly influenced by consultants suggesting scope for savings in costs of procurement and contract administration by letting fewer, larger contracts. Where the considerable variety of civil engineering work is concerned, however, even within the context of a highway maintenance contract, it is not automatic that fewer and larger results in the best use being made of all resources.


  Future contractual arrangements therefore constitute another area in which an independent "Roads Inspector" might usefully participate, just as the Rail Regulator looks at procurement of railway infrastructure maintenance services.

  CECA cannot claim any credit for the idea of a "Roads Inspector", which belongs to the BRF, but it has been pleased to lend its support ever since it was appraised of the idea.

  Many of the problems experienced on the road network in recent years may be traced to the annuality of public budgets, or to the lack of hypothecation or "ring fencing" of funds for highway maintenance. CECA welcomes the ways in which the Government is addressing both of these problems, particularly in the local transport area with the introduction of five-year Local Transport Plans and capital funding allocations tied to those plans.

  However, there will always be some matters that are better delegated to independent bodies to set standards, set targets based on those standards, and monitor progress towards those targets. This is something that has been recognised in respect of front-line services, including health and education, and other forms of transport, including rail and air transport. Indeed, it seems increasingly that roads and road transport are the exceptions.

  CECA therefore urges the Committee to support the creation of an independent "Roads Inspector" at the earliest opportunity, in order that the advances that are already being made in respect of other dimensions of highway maintenance, including medium-term planning and medium-term allocations of funds, deliver the maximum benefit. It is a proposal that already has widespread support amongst the business community, and from many in the political world including local authorities.

  To recapitulate, the "Roads Inspector" would be an independent watchdog, empowered:

    —  to establish a set of clear, user-orientated standards for road maintenance condition;

    —  to convert these into key performance indicators for highway maintenance;

    —  to use these indicators as the basis for performance targets for each highway authority and its maintenance contractors;

    —  to monitor performance against these targets.

  It should also be a function of the inspectorate to spell out the financial implications of its targets, and to help ensure that adequate funding is provided for highway maintenance and improvements. Devolution notwithstanding, its remit should extend throughout the United Kingdom, not just England.

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