96.Like any physical asset, the highway network requires maintenance and renewal to counter deterioration. Planned, preventative maintenance, which involves resurfacing at regular intervals, is the most cost-effective method of keeping the road surface in good repair. The consequence of delaying essential work on roads is often to increase the bill for fixing the problem in the future, as well as additional costs from public liability exposure. In other words, as the DfT has said: “The costs of fixing the roads will rise exponentially if problems are left unattended—so holding back from work is truly a false economy”. The figure below illustrates how, as roads are left to deteriorate to a greater state of disrepair, the costs of maintenance increases:
Figure 6: Road maintenance costs and network condition
97.Highway authorities have a legal duty for the upkeep of highways ‘maintainable at public expense’ (i.e. not private or unadopted roads) under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980, as amended. We heard some suggestions that this duty should be amended so that it better reflects a “requirement for long-term planning and efficient maintenance strategies” or, alternately—given how much time would be needed to amend primary legislation—that the Government should introduce a rigorous audit process linked to funding. This view was not widely shared.
98.There are two defences available to a highway authority faced with claims under section 41 for failure to maintain the highway: a common law defence and a statutory defence provided for in section 58 of the 1980 Act. We heard some criticisms of section 58, particularly about it being out of date, while others told us it is necessary to ensure that local authorities are not overrun with applications for compensation, which would drain even more resources than at present. It is worth noting that section 58 ultimately derives from section 1 of the Highways (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1961. It was introduced not to give local authorities a ‘get out clause’ but to extend liability where it could be proven—prior to the introduction of section 1 of the 1961 Act local highway authorities could not be sued at all for failure to maintain the highway.
99.Set up in 2011, the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) brings together national and local government from across the UK to consider road infrastructure engineering and operational matters. Steve Berry from the Department for Transport praised UKRLG as: “a repository of best practice … a key group in terms of where we share best practice … That has really been helpful”.
100.The standards that must be followed by local highway authorities are set out in Well-managed highway infrastructure: a code of practice, which was published by UKRLG in October 2016. Adoption of its recommendations is a matter for each highway authority, based on their own legal interpretation, risks, needs and priorities. The three main features of the 2016 guidance are:
a)The adoption of a risk-based approach, where authorities must assess their network needs, with the aim of maximising the serviceable life of assets and reducing the frequency of asset renewals. This move, away from the prescriptive guidance to a risk-based approach, should, according to Zurich Insurance, “enable local authorities to better balance their resources with their own individual highways risks”. CIHT said that “the risk-based approach is a much more comprehensive way of trying to determine priorities than just looking at single attributes”. East Riding of Yorkshire Council, however, told us that the “move to a risk-based approach has been challenging and will take a few years to bed in”.
b)The adoption of an integrated asset management approach to highway infrastructure, where highways authorities establish their own service standards based on a sound risk assessment using clear evidence of their asset condition and the local context in which the infrastructure exists. CIHT explained that: “authorities will be trying to make sure that they invest the money where it is most needed. Sometimes that might not be in the street where the public would like it most, because, based on the data available, another bit of the network might need the money more urgently”.
c)National guidance to promote a joined-up approach between adjacent authorities.
101.Adoption of the risk-based approach varies around the country, as do its perceived impacts on maintenance priorities and repair times. In January 2019 the RAC Foundation reported that:
a)the risk-based approach had been widely adopted and would shortly be almost universal;
b)almost all authorities still set minimum investigation levels (based on depth and width measurements) below which they will not assess potholes or assign response times based on the dangers they pose; and
c)investigation levels vary considerably, with significant divisions between local authorities as to whether they would, for example, investigate further when a pothole was between 20–30mm deep.
The Institute of Highways Engineers (IHE) expressed concerns that local authorities who have so far failed to adopt a risk-based approach to repairs risk an increase in their number of public liability claims. The Local Government Transport Advisory Group (TAG) believes that an asset management approach of planned, preventative maintenance would see “large revenue spends on call centres, complaints and reactive teams replaced with smart systems and asset management”.
102.As discussed in Chapter 2, some local authorities have told us that a lack of available funding has prevented them from fully implementing asset management approaches, leading to a significant reduction in planned programmes of preventative maintenance. The levels of road surfacing frequency have yo-yoed over the years. The annual AIA ALARM survey revealed that in 2001 the average frequency of surfacing was 113 years in England and 33 years in London; that is now 79 years in England and 28 years in London, though there have been some variations in the years between.
103.Many local authorities contract-out road surfacing, while others perform the function in-house. We heard about the pros and cons of a range of practices. For example, Lynne Wait from the South West Highways Alliance told us that across the South West there is “a whole range of delivery models from very light-touch clients through to in-house” and that in her own authority of Poole, most services are delivered in-house. Anne Shaw from Transport for the West Midlands described a similar picture across that region. She explained:
Some authorities have the capacity [to do in-house works], some have a smaller capacity in putting together programmes and contracting out the delivery of those sorts of things. At the moment, for each authority responsible for that maintenance, there are different levels of capacity that probably need to be looked at to ensure that we get best value across the region and can support each other where we have other organisations that have access to the labour that can do the improvements.
104.Andrew Haysey said that Gateshead Council, as part of a procurement organisation called the North East Procurement Organisation (NEPO), used an in-house contractor who subcontracts some work, like surfacing, to third parties. Andrew Loosemore told us that Kent County Council used third-party highways maintenance contractors, who were performance-managed through “a suite of indicators”:
The current contract has about 35 live performance indicators that we monitor on a monthly basis. There is a financial incentive around those not to fail, and to deliver a good service for us.
105.Where local authorities use contracts, it is critical that they are driving value for money and achieving effective resurfacing. Third party contractors need to be properly supervised and the contracts need to have incentives and oversight mechanisms to ensure that works are effective. Stephen Hall told us about Cumbria’s mixed model, which involves a core in-house service to provide responsive maintenance (e.g. pothole fixing) and third party framework contracts for things like surface dressing and larger-scale civil engineering projects. Mr Hall explained the importance of establishing that “both the client and the contractor are commercially important to each other”:
The issue of importance to each other commercially drives behaviours that become more important than key performance indicators and penalty clauses, because they say, ‘We are invested in solving a problem’, as opposed to defending a position.
Lynne Stinson told us that Leicestershire has a similar mixed model to Cumbria and that for large schemes it is part of the Midlands Highways Alliance:
All our big maintenance or improvement schemes go out through that. It has a full set of KPIs, but it also has community. We have collaboration meetings and board meetings; we have joint working groups with the contractors, so we are building up that relationship. We are developing relationship management plans with most of those contractors as well. It is all about working together to deliver schemes.
Transport for London works on a similar basis; Patrick Doig told us that TfL has in-house expert engineers, asset managers and inspectors, but maintenance and upgrade works are contracted out. He explained how the contracts are managed:
We give the contractor a fixed amount of money every month for a set of service standards around routine things. It provides a level of risk transfer to the private sector to deliver against those activities and all the maintenance that we call off specifically ourselves.
Similarly, there is a range of performance matrices. With our current set of seven-year contracts we are trying to have a more collaborative alliance approach that is slightly less contractualised and more around working together to a common set of overall outcomes over the life of the contract.
106.Stakeholders told us that all councils should engage with good industry practice and new products and process innovations that would enable them to get “more for less”. Further, sustained and effective collaboration, and sharing of knowledge and resources between the local and regional alliances can support and enable the development of best practice approaches and enable their deployment with an appropriate consistency. There are good examples of this. For example, Coventry City Council told us about the Midland Service Improvement Group (MSIG), which supports and enables the development of best practice approaches and their consistent deployment; the MSIG Highway Maintenance and Asset Management Task Group has worked to develop a set of high-level principles for a risk-based approach to safety inspections and defect response times. The London Highways Alliance Contract, developed as a joint initiative between TfL and London’s boroughs, extends collaboration by encouraging the four area-based contractors and 34 highway authorities to work together across boundaries, provide joint support, share best practice and success factors in performance and encourage innovation across and through the supply chain.
107.More widely, the Road Surface Treatment Association (RSTA), the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), and the Local Councils Road Innovation Group (LCRIG) are further examples of well-developed and effective collaboration across the highway sector. Steve Berry from the Department for Transport told us that it does “quite a lot of work” with these sector groups and that where it supports projects (such as Live Labs), it wants to share the work and ultimately results of such projects “across all highway authorities. Any highway authority is open to go and see what is actually happening, so that maybe they can replicate it”.
108.Stakeholders suggested that in addition to the improvement and implementation of new guidance, the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) promotes collaboration across the sector and has produced several useful improvement products. However, some witnesses told us that it requires more funding and support from central government if it is to achieve its full potential. More generally, Patrick Doig from TfL advised us that for all the good work happening at local and regional levels, more could be done nationally:
… to harmonise approaches across the country so that we can make sure we have a consistent approach that particularly helps address the risk of liability or claims that could be exploited if different authorities do things in different ways, and enables us to defend that in a robust and consistent manner.
109.On 31 March 2019 the Department for Transport announced a ‘Review and Audit Group’ in liaison with the highways sector to ensure the adoption of good practice. Steve Berry from the DfT explained that the group is intended to assess the effectiveness of the incentive element of local highway maintenance funding (see Chapter 2, above) in encouraging asset management, best practice, collaboration and more standardisation of contracts and how to take it forward from 2021.
110.It is too early to judge what the shift to a risk-based approach will mean for local authority resourcing and effectiveness. We got no clear picture of whether authorities understand what resources they need and the cultural change associated with it. This is unsurprising given that it has taken more than two years for the adoption of the new approach to become widespread. We are concerned that we may have simply replaced the need for prescriptive guidance on asset management with a need for prescriptive guidance on risk assessment. Making the best use of available funding requires the sharing and adoption of good practice. We conclude this is a key role for Government. We recommend that the Department continue to monitor the move to a risk-based approach. By the end of 2021 it should publish a report setting out what effect the risk-based approach has had, how local authorities have adapted and adjusted and whether it has improved their efficiency and effectiveness.
111.It is clear to us that local councils and industry are developing good practice in highway survey and maintenance. However, from the evidence we have received it is not always clear that this is being shared widely. We welcome the improvements made in this regard by regional highway alliances, but we think this should be taken further. Where alliances are developing their own good practice, they should be sharing this and benchmarking it against one another. The DfT could do more to facilitate this, for example by providing a virtual good practice toolkit and repository so that councils across England can find examples of good practice by road type, maintenance method etc. along with contact information for the relevant council or alliance.
112.We welcome the DfT’s announcement of 31 March 2019 of a new guide on best practice in pothole repair, developed with the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport and the establishment of a ‘Review and Audit Group’, in liaison with the highways sector, to ensure the adoption of good practice through the innovation strand of local highway funding. We recommend that the DfT set clear goals for what it wants the guide and the group to achieve. It should set and publish measurable targets. Within 12 months of the publication of the guide and the establishment of the group, the Department should report on the effectiveness of the guide and group, how they have performed against the goals and targets initially set out for them, and what they have achieved.
190 More info, see: All Party Parliamentary Group on Highway Maintenance, , October 2013
191 Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) ()
192 DfT, , July 2013, para 1.43
193 Coventry City Council ()
194 Metis Consultants Ltd. ()
195 Only two pieces of written evidence referenced it in a negative way in addition to Metis: RAC Foundation (); Lincolnshire County Council ()
196 For full details, see section 4 of House of Commons Library briefing paper , CBP 8383, 19 February 2019
197 Lincolnshire County Council ()
198 Zurich Insurance Plc ()
199 There is a legal and historical description as to how this came about given of what became the 1961 Act in the House of Lords on 5 July 1961.
201 UKRLG, , October 2016; this replaced all previous guidance. The UKRLG also published the Highway Infrastructure Asset Management Guidance (HIAMG) in May 2013, which is aimed at local highway authorities and provides advice on how asset management principles may be used to support a more efficient approach to maintaining highway infrastructure assets. For more information, see: UKRLG, , May 2013
202 The Code of Practice is not statutory but provides highway authorities with guidance on highways management.
203 Leicestershire County Council ()
204 Zurich Insurance Plc ()
206 East Riding of Yorkshire Council ()
207 Institute of Highway Engineers ()
209 Oxfordshire County Council ()
210 RAC Foundation, “”, 18 January 2019
211 Institute of Highway Engineers ()
212 Local Government Technical Advisors Group (LGTAG) ()
213 The Road Surface Treatments Association (); Thurrock Council (); Urban Transport Group (); Institute of Highway Engineers (); Oxfordshire County Council (); Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) (); Zurich Insurance Plc (); Surrey County Council (); Kent County Council ()
214 For example, it fell to 55 years in England in 2017, rising to 92 years in 2018, before falling again; see: AIA, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey 2001, 4 April 2001; , 20 March 2018, p13; , 26 March 2019, p13
219 Highways England uses a contractual framework for work on the SRN that includes both financial rewards and penalties, depending on performance against the agreed cost of work undertaken. There is also a process of redress for poor quality, including non-compliance with contract, standards or statutory obligation. This ranges from contractors having to bear the cost of correcting defective work through to contract termination [, 10 April 2019]
224 The Road Surface Treatments Association ()
225 Midland Service Improvement Group ()
226 Coventry City Council ()
227 Transport for London ()
228 Midland Service Improvement Group ()
230 For more information, see:
231 Metis Consultants Ltd. (); Devon County Council (); Local Government Association (); Midland Service Improvement Group ()
232 Oxfordshire County Council () and Herefordshire Council ()
234 DfT press notice, “”, 31 March 2019
Published: 1 July 2019