Newly released government figures have revealed that road maintenance spending by councils is at its lowest level in ten years.
Statistics from the Department for Transport show that local authority maintenance spending on B roads, C roads, and unclassified routes was just £1.87bn in 2016-17. This is a significant reduction from the £2.46bn spent in 2004-05.
Well-managed highways play a central role in the lives of the communities they serve, and are essential for economic growth. Indeed, more than 30,000 insurance claims are made against highways authorities each year, forming the largest proportion of Public Liability claims at Zurich Municipal. We are therefore concerned by this fall in funding and the resulting impact it could have on local authority budgets.
So how should local authorities act to protect their highway resources in the face of continued funding cuts? The Well-Managed Highway Infrastructure guide remains a valuable resource from Government on how to adopt a risk-based approach to managing highway assets. While the two-year implementation period is still ongoing, there are several key things local authorities can consider sooner rather than later.
Firstly, local highway authorities should look to collaborate when reviewing and implementing their highways maintenance processes and procedures. Not only will a collaborative approach potentially deliver savings, but sharing best practice will also help to maintain levels of service across authority boundaries. If authorities were to operate in silos and each assess their highways assets independently, neighbouring authorities could end up pursuing completely different strategies in terms of inspections and maintenance. This could become a threat to claims defensibility, should a serious accident or incident occur on a road that passes through multiple local authority areas.
Secondly, local authorities should invest in collating accident history, traffic volume and claims data. This will provide a broader evidence base for the impact of inspections and maintenance. Authorities can be more confident of their decision-making with the weight of analysis and understanding of such data. If the data shows many claims payments in a certain area, it suggests there may be a particular problem that can be addressed.
Local authorities should also seek to use historical claims data in using limited resources more efficiently. For example, if there are many claims relating to potholes on a particular road, the local authority might decide to resurface the entire road, rather than reactively dealing with each pothole after a claim or complaint is made. Conversely, even with the road in a less than ideal condition, the data may reveal that there are very few claims. The local authority may then decide to carry on making repairs on a reactive basis rather than carrying out wholesale repairs.
Finally, it’s crucial that local authorities work with their insurers to harness the insight that lies in claims data. Ideally, the insurer, the local authority risk manager and the highways asset manager will work together, talking to each other regularly and sharing information to mitigate highways risks. It’s particularly important for local authorities to remain engaged with risk and insurance managers during the revision process, so that highways claims defensibility is not compromised.
Insurers may also be well-placed to advise on other elements of the new code’s recommended risk-based approach, such as performing a critical trend appraisal, and developing and adopting an appropriate strategy and asset management policy.
The reduction in government funding for highways is clearly a concern, particularly given the continued overall funding gap for local authorities. However, by adopting the simple measures outlined in the Well-Managed Highways Infrastructure guide, and by taking an organised and collaborative approach to highways maintenance, local authorities might be able to deliver long-term stability for the public.
Rod Penman is head of public services at Zurich Municipal
This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine.