Scotland faces sub-standard road conditions and more outsourcing of frontline services over the next five years due to budgetary pressures, one of the most senior figures in the nation’s local transport sector has warned.
Scott Allan, chair of the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland (SCOTS) and head of amenity services at Renfrewshire Council, made the comments in a frank speech to the Road Expo Scotland conference.
Scott Allan, chair of SCOTS
He said budgetary pressures could see more front line services ‘moving to arms length [delivery] or even externalisation’ up until 2020, and was sceptical about the potential for greater borrowing or PFI deals to inject some cash into the service.
After accepting that road conditions in Scotland can often look poor ‘due to decades of underfunding’, he added that councils had a difficult balancing act to perform on highways asset management and had to prioritise growth above maintenance.
Only a conclusive argument for road maintenance boosting growth could support extra spending, Mr Allan argued.
‘The answer to this is if investment in roads maintenance drives economic growth then that is a good investment. That is something we may have to bottom out though, because if capital investment in new projects stimulates greater economic growth, I suspect that we will have to live with road conditions that are sub-standard, at least until budget conditions improve for authorities.
‘Realistically if we continue to see budgets decline we will see road conditions maintained probably much as they are now for the next five years, but being delivered more efficiently. We won’t see a big change in condition unless a strong correlation can be made between road condition and the economy.’
Despite the logic of cost effective long-term asset management, Mr Allan said councils were forced into making short-term judgements and perhaps holding on until the wider economy picked up.
‘It’s how long you can survive without investment. At my council we have about 35% of the roads needing attention. But if I was to put all of the reactive maintenance into prudential borrowing I could only raise between £5m - £10m capital whereas what we need to spend is more like £40m.
‘The difficulty with PFIs is that local authorities can borrow money so much cheaper. So if you can do something through local authorities generally that is more cost effective than going to private finance. The big risk of private finance is you have to commit the budgets now to an uncertain future. There is no budget flexibility there. So [I am] not putting that off the table but I think there are issues about how it is considered.’