Comment: Taking on a new way to fund highways

 

February is a month of promise and expectations: winter is passing, days are lengthening, snowdrops are in bloom and, of course, there was Valentine’s Day. For local government engineers however, it’s the time when annual highway maintenance budgets are signed off and financial planning is replaced by operational delivery.

Highway maintenance has particular good reason to see 2015 as the start of a new era, with confirmation recently received for year one funding of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) planned six-year capital investment programme, as well as the prospect of a self-assessment process later this year that will establish where each council sits on the efficiency journey.

Support for the DfT’s proposals regarding self-assessment and efficiency banding was high among local highway authorities, reflecting the resource pressure on local highway services and recognising the need for change in the way we plan and manage highway maintenance.

The focus on good asset management was also broadly welcomed. Asset management is used widely in sectors such as rail, utilities and buildings management, with proven efficiency benefits for long-term maintenance. Yet the local government highway sector reports only about 60% adoption of this approach (data from 2014 ALARM survey).

There are probably two main reasons for this: firstly, a historical lack of resources and capability has limited the opportunity for some of the smaller authorities to advance in this area.

The second reason is political and stems from a perception in some quarters that adoption of asset management principles somehow hands decision making over to the paid professional and, as a consequence, reduces influence and control for the elected politician.

In these days of localism and the more ‘hands on’ approach adopted by many elected members, asset management has to be recognised by all as a means by which service delivery improvements can be achieved and public perception improved, as well being a contributory factor in securing capital investment.

A key factor in getting asset management accepted and embedded into a council’s approach to highway maintenance planning and delivery is undoubtedly gaining elected members’ trust and confidence in this way of working.

Early exposure to the principles of asset management is critical, as is an understanding that the efficiency benefits created greatly increase the elected members’ opportunity to address the frequent but often minor ‘niggles’ that fill their post bags.

A recent good example of this has been at Knowsley MBC where the council’s scrutiny process has been used to good effect, resulting in support for service reform and the formal adoption of asset management principles.

Knowsley used the Highway Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) highways infrastructure asset management guidance as the template for its work, and its wider use has increased markedly over recent months.

This facility remains available as readily accessible support for other authorities wishing to go down this route. Another important factor to emerge over recent months is the increasing willingness of local authorities to share good practice in a context of collective improvement.

In many cases this is achieved through informal, usually local or regional, groups of authorities coming together in a spirit of mutual support. The emergence of combined authorities brings an increasingly formal stimulant to these behaviours, resulting in a more structured approach to sharing information and good practice.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s asset management maturity assessment exemplifies this collective approach, again using HMEP’s available product to drive improvement through a collaborative process.

The approach taken by the DfT in creating a performance related element of future funding puts even more emphasis on the widespread adoption of robust asset management by local authorities.

DfT listened to the sector when the potential damage that a ‘big bang’ introduction of the incentive element was highlighted and the resultant phased introduction should give all authorities, irrespective of their starting point, opportunity to address this important area of highway service management.

Access to proven technical support, in the form of HMEP’s products, the availability of direct support from peer councils who are further down the line in this area and, not least, a commercial market place that now benefits from greater diversity and affordability of relevant products means that asset management is one area where local government highways should be able to take big steps forward over the next few years.

 

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