DEVELOPING A HIGHWAY MAINTENANCE STRATEGY
To consider a report by the Highways Asset & Risk manager (copy attached) as a follow up to the report submitted to the Performance Scrutiny Committee on 7 December 2017 and to discuss with a representative from Welsh Government highway network capital funding matters.
10.15 a.m. – 11.00 a.m.
The Lead Member for Highways, Planning and Sustainable Transport introduced the Highways Asset and Risk Manager’s report (previously circulated). This was a follow-up report to the one presented to the Committee in December 2017 about the County’s Highway Maintenance Strategy.
At the conclusion of the discussion on the Strategy at the December 2017 meeting, the Committee had extended an invitation to the Welsh Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport to attend a future meeting of the Committee to discuss capital funding for highways projects. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Secretary had not been able to accept the invitation but had offered that one of his officials be invited to discuss the matter with the committee. Mr Dewi Rowlands, the Welsh Government’s (WG) Head of Transport Planning had accepted the Committee’s invitation and was welcomed to the meeting by the Chair. The Lead Member expressed his gratitude to Mr Rowlands’ department and the WG for awarding Denbighshire the £1.2m Road Refurbishment Grant, as well as an additional £100K to help address some of the extra maintenance work required on the county’s roads following the severe winter weather.
The Head of Highways and Environmental Services reminded the Committee that highways had been one of the corporate priorities in the 2012-17 Corporate Plan. This had resulted in some considerable amount of investment being made in the county’s road network which had seen the condition of the roads improve markedly. The challenge during the current Council term would be to wisely invest continually dwindling financial resources in the road network in an attempt to ensure that the benefits of previous investment was not lost, and that other roads did not deteriorate to a point where they were no longer passable. He confirmed that the receipt of the additional £1.2m Road Refurbishment Grant had been greatly appreciated and had been earmarked for the four projects detailed in the report. Nevertheless, due to the costs associated with road maintenance projects whilst the four schemes listed in the report would be realised, there were a number of other schemes which would not benefit from this one-off grant.
The WG’s Head of Transport Planning thanked the Committee for the invitation to attend the meeting to discuss highways capital funding matters and conveyed the Cabinet Secretary’s apologies for not being able to attend. During his introduction he outlined the WG’s vision for the highways network in Wales emphasising that it was important to reflect on what had happened in the past to understand the context of what was proposed for the future. A recent Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) survey had indicated positively that the extent of Wales’ highway network in poor condition had been reducing year on year between 2011/12 until 2016/17, which was the latest data available. There was a recognition within the WLGA’s evidence that the funding injection to local authorities from WG had contributed towards the improvement in the quality of the highways network nationally. He explained that the Local Government Borrowing Initiative (LGBI), which operated for three financial years between the 2012/13 and 2014/15 represented an added allocation within each local authority’s Revenue Support Grant (RSG) which increased the councils’ potential to borrow money to fund capital projects. It was stressed that this initiative had not come to an end but that there had been a change in approach with the WG now servicing local authorities’ borrowing costs and would continue do so until the 2034/35 financial year, subject to councils giving a commitment to improve their highway assets.
In respect of the £1.2m Road Refurbishment Grant and the additional funding allocated to address additional maintenance work, following the severe winter weather, the WG expected local authorities to report to it in March 2019 on the impact of money spent in their area. From thereon, local authorities were to report to WG annually on the management of their highways network and the impact of their investment in the network. Denbighshire was not alone in having a backlog of investment required in its highways network, as every local authority in Wales had a backlog, together with the WG itself. The WG had recently reported to the Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee that it had a backlog of maintenance work amounting to £83m on its highways, motorways and trunk road network, with an additional £39m worth of investment required on its network structures. The challenge to WG and local authorities alike was how to effectively manage the risk of deterioration in order not to lose the benefits of the investment already made in the network. With a view to addressing these challenges representatives from the WG, WLGA and the County Surveyors’ Society Wales (CSSW) had recently agreed to work together with a view to sourcing the right evidence to demonstrate the need for investment in specific network projects. Production of consistent robust evidence would be key for highways authorities submitting bids for funding from WG to substantiate their applications when competing for scarce public finances against other public bodies with equally important priorities. Consistent and realistic performance measures would need to be developed in order to support the delivery of a stable state network that would maintain its asset value whilst aligning to the aims and long-term values of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 .
The WG’s representative informed the Committee that he was impressed with what he had seen to date of Denbighshire’s Highways Asset Management Plan. He was of the view that this important document contained all assets relating to the county’s highways network, including carriageways, bridges, drains, footways, signage etc. and adopted a holistic approach towards their maintenance for the benefit of the entire network. This Plan would be an invaluable document for the Wales-wide group looking at developing an evidence base to support future highway network funding bids. The detail in the Plan and any obstacles identified as part of the plan’s implementation would assist the all-Wales group with its work of developing a toolkit to assist stakeholders to compile robust evidence-based bids. Sharing best practice across Wales would benefit all. He had also been impressed by the Council’s Annual Status and Option Report and to see that the capital and revenue spend was in line with the national highway maintenance element of the Standard Spending Assessment (SSA). Denbighshire’s performance in maintaining its ‘A’ roads had progressed well, whilst ‘B’ and unclassified roads were satisfactory. However, performance in relation to ‘C’ roads was not as well. The overall picture was also positive i.e. the length of the network in overall poor condition was reducing. Nevertheless, there were now roads currently identified as ‘amber’ which were in danger of moving into a ‘red’ status without investment in the near future. A decision to invest in these roads at an early stage would be a ‘spend to save’ approach as it would mitigate against further deterioration and the possibility of ‘losing’ parts of the network for ever and its consequential impact on the economy and on communities. No highway authority in Wales could afford to allow the value of its assets to reduce. Stability in asset value was key if the economy was to flourish for the benefit of all, hence the importance of all authorities working with the WG, WLGA and CSSW to realise the most effective use of public funds to manage the highways network for the future.
Responding to members’ questions the WG’s representative, Lead Member for Highways, Planning and Sustainable Transport, Head of Highways and Environmental Services and the Highways Asset and Risk Manager:
· advised that it was the Council’s responsibility to prioritise revenue spending on its network, this was determined based on a risk assessment prioritisation process. However, whilst transport funding had drastically reduced in recent years there was some grant funding available i.e. across Wales £4m for supporting public transport over four years and £60m for improving walking and cycling on designated routes over a three year period subject to specific criteria being met. The WG representative undertook to discuss with the Lead Member and officers whether the A547 Abergele Straights project would meet any of the set criteria;
· informed members that the Council had a strategy for the installation of dropped kerbs across the county. Work was currently underway on drawing up a list of locations across the county where dropped kerbs needed to be installed. A similar list of small drainage schemes across the county was also being compiled. Both lists would be given to the appointed contractor in the near future for them to commence the work on both projects;
· confirmed that whilst no reference was included in Appendix A to the report, ‘A review of the condition of Denbighshire’s roads since 2011/12’ to ‘B’ roads in the county they were most definitely included in the Council’s highways maintenance programme for 2018/19;
· confirmed that the ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads condition survey was a WG funded independent survey, which entailed a non-evasive technique examination called Scanner, which was undertaken during the summer to determine the proportion of the network that was deemed to be in poor condition;
· advised that in 2016/17 WG spent £155m on highway network maintenance;
· confirmed that WG was exploring different materials, including recycled products, when commissioning highway maintenance work and had been involved in a number of pilots to test such products. However, highways were only one part of the infrastructure and transport arrangements, hence the need to explore better ways of working and travelling. With a view to contributing to the de-carbonisation agenda, making effective use of technology and devising sustainable travel solutions the WG was working closely with the office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales on developing a sustainable travel strategy. Data was already available on the economic value of effective transport links and a well maintained highway network. Work was currently being undertaken in conjunction with Bangor University to better understand the social and cultural value of good quality transport links in relation to connected communities. The UK Cabinet Office had published a document called ‘A guide to Social Return on Investment’ on this particular topic;
· advised that in relation to realising best value in terms of borrowing for highways capital investment the Council was guided by Finance Officers’ expertise. In terms of additional borrowing to fund revenue spending on highway maintenance work the Council was governed by prudential borrowing rules and borrowed any additional funding required from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB);
· confirmed that the WG under the former LGBI scheme, which operated for three years, provided money to local authorities to support capital borrowing for highways work. Over three years a total of £172m had been borrowed across Wales for highways maintenance work. The final payment to local authorities via the RSG to service the borrowing costs would be made in 2034/35 ;
· advised that the Council was currently in the process of developing a footway condition survey, similar to the Highways Asset Management Strategy, which would fit in well with WG’s vision for highways asset management plans to include all carriageways;
· confirmed that the Council received very few complaints or compensation claims in relation to accidents due to the condition of footways. Statistics relating to the number of claims made against the Council’s insurance due to the accidents occurring because of the condition of footways would be provided to members;
· advised that utility companies could temporarily re-instate surfaces to paths or carriageways subject to a full re-instatement taking place within six months. Members were advised to contact the Council if they became aware of any accidents occurring due to temporary re-instatements, or if they were concerned about the quality of any re-instatements. Officers monitored the quality of re-instatement work on a regular basis and if the work was not up to the required standard the Council would fine the utility company concerned;
· confirmed that a guidance was issued by WG annually in the autumn to help local authorities submit applications for funding for highways projects. This guidance contained the criteria for applications as approved by the Cabinet Secretary. If applications met the set criteria WG would then determine the level of funding it could provide for the schemes submitted. There was no ‘set’ percentage figure allocated to each authority for highways funding, each application was determined on its own merits whilst one-off allocations such as the recent Road Refurbishment Grant were shared out using a pre-determined formula;
· confirmed that the list of roads contained in Appendix ‘A’ did not contain ‘A’ roads;
· described different types of recycled materials used by the Council during recent years for road maintenance work. This work was partly experimental to enable the authority to evaluate whether these materials would be durable in the long-term and reap financial benefits for the Council through not having to pay the cost of disposing of contaminated waste etc. Some of the pilots had been more successful than others, whilst it was too early yet to draw conclusions on the long-term benefits and resilience of more recent projects;
· confirmed that the Council’s Chief Finance Officer would be able to advise members on the Council’s borrowing limits;
· advised that legal rights to close or de-commission roads or rights of way lay within the powers of the local authority; and
· advised that if the Authority wished to apply for funding allocated for cycle route improvements the roads in question would already need to be designated on the network map as cycle routes and the proposed improvements would need to meet the set criteria for such routes.
During the discussion members emphasised the need for utility companies to liaise and communicate more effectively with local businesses and residents when planning to undertake necessary maintenance work, to enable them to plan for any disruption that may be caused to their business or their daily lives. With respect of the B4401 road in the Cynwyd area the WG representative indicated his willingness to discuss with the local member and officers if funding for improvements to that particular road could be sourced from a variety of WG transport specific funding streams, now that capital funding for such improvement schemes had reduced significantly.
The Chair thanking Mr Dewi Rowlands and Council Officers for attending and answering members’ questions stressed the importance of the county’s highways network to the entire county, using the analogy that the county’s roads represented the arteries and veins that carried blood to all parts of the body to keep it healthy and functioning. It was, therefore, important that sufficient investment was made in all parts of the network to ensure that the county thrived on all levels, be it economically, culturally or socially. For this to be realised, the local authority and WG transport strategies needed to complement each other and be integrally linked.
Following and in-depth discussion the Committee:
RESOLVED that subject to the above observations to –
(i) receive the report and appendix; and
(ii) to support the work underway nationally to develop all-encompassing highways asset management plans that would assist all stakeholders to effectively prioritise funding for highways projects and maintenance work with a view to realising optimum value for money as well as realising the aims of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015
- Highways Report 19th July 2018, item 5. PDF 120 KB
- Highways Report 19th July 2018 - Appendix A, item 5. PDF 1 MB