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The Government believe that if local authorities are to take proper care of their highway assets, they need to plan. For some years, we have been working with the UKRLG to encourage authorities to develop transport asset management plans. These are not just documents that engineers write and then put on a shelf, as they provide a clear statement of the assets held, their condition and the level of service that the council wants them to deliver. Only in the light of these can the transport asset
management plan set out how the authority intends to manage the asset to keep it in a condition that will deliver that level of service.
Anne Main: May I take the Minister's comments as read? I am sure that my parliamentary opponent from the Labour party will be interested to hear that he puts all the blame for potholes in St. Albans on the failure of my county council to manage the roads. I beg to differ about that: I said we can learn from best practice, but I am sure the Minister is not really saying that we have potholes in the roads because of poor management-or is he?
Mr. Khan: All local highway authorities should plan for different scenarios in the winter months. I have mentioned the historic amounts that have been invested in local authorities around the country over the past 13 years, but the hon. Lady will be aware that some parties advised us to make immediate cuts in this financial year. We did not take that advice, and have continued to invest record amounts this year as well.
However, I hasten to add that, if we had taken the advice to reduce the deficit even faster-by half over the next four years-the result would be immediate cuts to local authorities around the country, including the one that the hon. Lady represents. We have also been advised to impose a zero increase in council tax. If we had taken that advice, any idea that there might be additional funds for local authorities would have been laughable.
The context for this debate is that the hon. Lady is asking for central Government subsidy to help her local authority with potholes. That does cause one to wonder whether she knows what she is talking about.
Anne Main: I have suggested that the Minister consider imposing a pothole levy on the utilities companies, but he is choosing not to look at that. He is scoring party political points, even though road users, cyclists and pedestrians are taking their lives in their hands on my roads. I really feel that that is beneath him, and I hope that he will try to answer my logical and reasonable questions about the funding formula that affects Hertfordshire and the potholes that affect my residents. Is he prepared to think out of the box, and associate funding with the damage done by the utilities companies?
Mr. Khan: Far be it from me to defend myself; I was trying to read the speech which dealt with that, but I was intervened on, I think, six times. I will try to return now to the speech and deal with some of the points that the hon. Lady made.
One point that is worth touching on in the context of perceived unfairness in funding is that the Department has additionally provided private finance initiative funding of £3.96 billion, and PFI credits for highways maintenance and street lighting schemes. Cyclists and motorcyclists find those very useful. There are 25 sign projects with a value of £993 million. In addition, there are 10 projects in procurement, six street lighting schemes and four highways maintenance projects with a combined value of £2.35 billion-examples of the investment that this Government give to local authorities, not just Hertfordshire but others around the country.
One of the things that local highways engineers have been telling us a lot over the past few months is that the roads that have been worst affected by the winter weather have been those that were not in optimal condition in the first place. Where a proper treatment has been put down, which is effective in keeping water out of the road's substructure, the damage is far less.
There is another lesson to learn from asset management planning. Clearly, those who assume that they are perfect will not learn the lessons; those who have the humility to learn the lessons might. That lesson is this: considering the whole life of the asset, and planning over that horizon, delivers much better value for the taxpayer-and much better roads for the road user-than a purely reactive approach of repairing whatever happens to be worst.
Asset management planning will also help local authority engineers to make the case to their authority treasurers for the funding needed to deliver the service that the council wants it to deliver. For the first time, authorities will be able to put a value on their highways assets. That will be an advantage to authorities such as Hertfordshire. The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy plans to publish later this month rules that will set out how to value highways assets in the authority's accounts, which can in turn feed into the Government's aim for whole of Government accounting.
When authorities undertake that valuation, they will discover that their highways assets are far and away the most valuable asset that they own-as the hon. Lady acknowledged-generally valued at more than all their
other assets put together. That fact alone should help to concentrate councils' collective minds on what resources they should devote to the public realm. One of the points that the hon. Lady raised, quoting someone else, was that sometimes politicians will choose to spend moneys on schools and hospitals, not roads. But I should make it clear that we do not want accountancy to drive the management of the highways assets; rather, it should be the other way round, with the accounting figures simply falling out as a by-product of good asset management.
The hon. Lady made a point about the utility companies paying a pothole tax for the damage that they might do. She will be aware that potholes can develop for a number of key reasons, including adverse weather, damage to or poor maintenance of roads, higher volumes of traffic and heavier vehicles than anticipated, and poor reinstatement after utility, highway authority or other works in the carriageway. In fact, the Government originally consulted in November 2009 on a revised edition of the code used by the utility companies, which is expected to be launched in April 2010 and focuses on formalising many of the practices already being undertaken. In particular, it looks to strengthen the requirements for edge treatment to ensure a better-performing joint. Utilities pay fees to authorities to inspect their works and ensure adherence to the required specification. Inspections can be made at various stages of the works up to the completion of the guarantee period, which may be two years or three years.