Highways - keeping up with neighbouring councils

  • Neighbouring authorities are increasingly collaborating on highways programmes to make efficiency savings
  • Collaboration is also important to aid claims defensibility
  • We discuss why collaboration is so important, and why contracts with third-party providers must be carefully managed to prevent claims

Across England, from the South West to the North East, local authorities are joining forces in an effort to manage their highways assets more effectively and efficiently.

Collaboration is fundamental to ensure the new Highways Code of Practice works.”
Clive Speed, Regional Senior Claims Service Manager, Zurich Municipal

Regional highways alliances have seen neighbouring authorities collaborate on the procurement of services, and the sharing of knowledge and best practice. The Midlands Highways Alliance, which became the UK’s first such partnership when it was launched in 2007, now includes 20 local authorities, and its collaborative approach has generated savings estimated at £4m a year.

This collaborative process is in part driven by the Department for Transport’s push for greater efficiencies in the highways network.

For example, in order to receive their full share of a £578m incentive fund that is available to all English local authorities outside London, councils were required to complete a self-assessment questionnaire. They were asked to provide evidence of how they are working collaboratively with neighbouring authorities, including evidence of “service improvements and efficiency gains achieved through these joint arrangements.”

A Local Highway Authorities Collaborative Alliance Toolkit has also been produced to offer practical guidance for neighbouring authorities considering joining forces.

How collaboration aids claims defensibility

Close collaboration between neighbouring authorities is also important for another reason – claims defensibility.

The current Code of Practice for Highways Maintenance sets national guidelines for how frequently certain categories of roads should be inspected. A proposed revised Code of Practice, due to be released later this year, would replace this system with a risk-based approach, where councils can decide for themselves how frequently inspections should take place.

Imagine a scenario in which, following the introduction of the revised Code of Practice, a serious accident occurs as a result of a defect on a road that passes through two local authority areas.

If the accident happened on your side of the border, and your authority had been carrying out less frequent inspections of the road than your neighbour, your authority’s approach might be questioned by a solicitor acting for a claimant.

Clive Speed, Regional Senior Claims Service Manager, Zurich Municipal, says: “Two neighbouring authorities could end up doing something totally different in terms of inspections and maintenance, because they are each assessing their highways assets independently.

“Authorities could therefore find themselves judged on the standards of their neighbours.

“We have held forums with our customers to discuss the implications of the proposed revised code, to help them build a collaborative approach with their neighbours. Collaboration is fundamental to ensure this new code works.”

Discovering that a neighbour is carrying out more frequent inspections and maintenance of a particular road may not prompt you to immediately increase the frequency of your own inspections.

However, you should ensure you:

  • Have a clear rationale for your inspection/maintenance frequency, which is backed up with evidence, such as accident history and traffic volume statistics
  • Collaborate closely with neighbouring authorities, and understand the evidence and processes that led your neighbours to reach their decisions regarding frequency of inspections and maintenance
  • Work closely with neighbours to confirm road boundaries

Our previous article, On track with highway asset management, discusses the importance of gathering evidence to protect your authority against claims.

Contract management considerations

It is also vital to carefully manage contracts with third-party providers responsible for maintaining and inspecting your roads. We have previously discussed some of the key contract management considerations local authorities face when outsourcing.

One vital consideration is that your duty to maintain your highways network is statutory and non-delegable, and in the event of a serious accident, a claimant is more likely to contact you than your contractor.

It is therefore vital, says Speed, that when outsourcing, both you and your contractor are absolutely clear on your contractual responsibilities.

“Most contracts have room for improvement and you might find you are not protected, should something go wrong,” he says.

In particular, you should consider what measures you have in place to ensure your contractor is adhering to your Highways Asset Management Plan.

Speed says: “If, for example, you employ a third party provider to inspect and maintain your roads, it is important the contract does not just stipulate how frequently inspections must be carried out; it should also set out a timetable for repairs, as for efficiency reasons, it may be in the contractor’s interests to wait before going out to remedy a defect on a particular road.

“You also need to put governance measures in place, to make sure your provider is adhering to your Highways Asset Management Plan.”