Maintaining strategic infrastructure: roads - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Maintaining the road networks

11. We welcome the progress the Department and the Agency have made in improving the way in which road maintenance is carried out. We heard about the Department's Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme which it set up in 2011 to help local authorities become more cost-effective in response to the budget reductions in the Spending Review 2010.[23] The Agency has introduced new contracts and strengthened its central decision making since our last report on road maintenance in 2010.[24]

12. It is clear to us that in order to get best value for money, highways authorities need to focus on planned preventative maintenance. The Department told us that too many local highway authorities react to events instead of anticipating and preventing disrepair. According to the Audit Commission it can cost three times as much to reconstruct a road that has been allowed to fail than it does to carry out preventative maintenance. In particular, significant costs in later years can be saved by preventing water from penetrating the road surface and damaging supporting structures and foundations.[25] Despite the importance of planning we heard that at least 45 local highway authorities did not have an asset management plan when surveyed in early 2014. The Agency has an asset management plan but it does not cover the whole life of its assets although it is currently trialling the development of a 30-year plan in its East Midlands Area.[26]

13. Neither the Department nor the Agency were able to tell us how much it should cost to maintain the road networks, because of a lack of evidence about how road infrastructure deteriorates over time and the costs of different maintenance activities.[27] The Agency has no information on 70% of its drainage systems and many local highway authorities have incomplete inventories of their bridges, drains, footways and street lighting. Some local authorities have invested in information about what assets they own and their condition but this is not universal.[28]

14. The Department explained that most local highways authorities have an understanding of how road surfaces deteriorate over time but this does not extend to other types of infrastructure. We heard that the Agency had predicted future demands for resurfacing based on its knowledge of road surfaces.[29] The Agency is also making progress on understanding how best to maintain its structures, although this work is not yet complete.[30] It is also working to understand the costs of maintenance better.[31] Many local highway authorities would like more help from the Department to understand the factors that drive maintenance costs and to quantify the benefits of preventative maintenance.[32]

15. We challenged the Department and the Agency on why most road maintenance work is carried out in the winter months which is less efficient due to longer nights and cold and wet weather. The Department and the Agency explained that while local highway authorities are at liberty to carry their main funding from the Department forward to future years, the Highways Agency cannot do this. The Agency told us that even though the Department confirms its budget in December of the preceding financial year, it is then unable to get design and planning work done quickly enough to avoid an increase in spending towards the end of the financial year. For example, the Agency spent less than 3% of its annual maintenance expenditure in April 2011 but this increased to 21% spent in the following March.[33]

16. The Department told us that its Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme has raised the profile of good asset management principles with local highway authorities.[34] We questioned why not all local highway authorities are taking advantage of the guidance and toolkits it provides, for example on areas such as pothole repair and managing drainage assets.[35] The Department told us that it recognises that there is a need to target the Programme at those local authorities that most need to improve road maintenance efficiency. It told us that the most effective way to raise performance was to encourage local highway authorities to find their own solutions through the Programme, rather than the Department telling authorities what to do.[36]

17. However we questioned the Department about how it uses it's funding to incentivise local highway authorities to become more efficient, for example to become better at planning or to collaborate more with each other. The Department told us that it has introduced some incentives in relation to how it allocates its Pothole Fund (of around £170 million), but the mechanism for allocating the Department's main funding for local highway authorities (£779 million in 2012-13) does not include rewards for better performers or penalties for the least efficient. The Department told us that it is planning to issue a consultation this summer on how best to allocate its £976 million a year funding for 2015-16 to 2020-21.[37]

18. The Department told us that the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme also encourages local highway authorities to work together. Two thirds are now members of highways alliances which allow them to share best practice and reduce costs through shared procurement arrangements. The new London Highways Alliance Contract also enables participating highways authorities to benchmark the four main contractors' prices and performance against each other. However, a substantial number of local highway authorities still work alone so do not get the benefits of collaboration.[38] The Agency provided an additional example of collaboration, describing how it works with the highway authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to identify and share good practice.[39]

23   Qq 1, 8, 47-49; C&AG's Report, para 17 Back

24   Q1; C&AG's Report, paras 1.21-1.24, 2.13-2.14; Committee of Public Accounts, Highways Agency: Contracting for Highways Maintenance, Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 188, 7 January 2010  Back

25   Qq 7; C&AG's Report, paras 2.3, 2.16 Back

26   Q 32; C&AG's Report, para 2.4 Back

27   Qq 1, 3-4, 49, 61-62 Back

28   Qq 2, 3; C&AG's Report, paras 2.11-2.12 Back

29   Qq 2, 3, 7, 60 Back

30   C&AG's Report, para 2.15 Back

31   Q 61 Back

32   C&AG's Report, para 2.23 Back

33   Qq 10, 15, 20, 26-28; C&AG's Report, Figure 14 Back

34   Qq 8, 22, 48 Back

35   Qq 32, 47; C&AG's Report, paras 17, 1.26 Back

36   Qq 44-48 Back

37   Qq 22, 32, 39-41, 47-48; C&AG's Report, paras 16, 1.7, 2.21 Back

38   Qq 8, 32, 47-48, 66; C&AG's Report, paras 15, 1.30-1.31, Figure 9 Back

39   Qq 54-57 Back

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Prepared 25 September 2014