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Best way is to work together

Highway maintenance looks like being at the back of queue in best value reviews, but as Margo Cole discovers, highways managers are already adopting the philosophy.

Three months after the introduction of best value local authorities are still coming to terms with what it really means for them. The Government introduced this replacement for compulsory competitive tendering on 1 April in order to 'secure lasting improvements in the costs and quality of local authority services', and to 'improve accountability between local authorities and the communities they serve'. It is also supposed to improve the efficiency of local services by at least 2% a year.

Every local authority has to do a best value review on all its activities within a five year period ending 21 March 2005.

Highway maintenance appears to be an activity that will be left to the end of the process.

In last year's ICE local authority survey none of the 106 authorities who responded intended to review maintenance during the first year.

But even if the reviews are not taking place yet, managers are introducing best value into the procurement of highway maintenance services.

Until 1 April this year, Oxfordshire County Council had a contract with its DLO for highway maintenance. 'That came to an end just as best value was due to start, ' explains Richard Dix, assistant director, highway management.

'We obviously needed to have a new contract which helped us to deliver best value. From the start of our new contract procedure we looked for co-operation in terms of best value and continuous improvement, so the information we sent out said we were looking for people that were going to co-operate with us and that would be happy with change and improvement, and with ideas from elsewhere such as partnering.'

Babtie - which had taken over as highway maintenance term consultant 18 months earlier - wrote the tender documentation, which includes a contract clause specifying the contractor and council should work together to provide best value.

The tenders were evaluated in a two-stage process, with the initial shortlist decided entirely on quality. Price only came into it during the second stage.

The winning contractor was the Accord group, which will carry out £56M of work over the next five years.

Kent County Council has a similar budget for its highway maintenance provision, and is also adopting a partnering approach with Babtie and Ringway. Both are on five year contracts that started in 1999.

Kent is linking up with district councils in the county in an arrangement known as the Kent Highways Partnership. 'All local day to day maintenance is done through the district councils, ' explains Rob White, head of Kent's transport management unit. 'They use Ringway as their works contractor, and Babtie as the consultant for any work over £25,000. Below that they would do it themselves.' The County Council commissions the larger schemes directly through Babtie.

Devon County Council will be reviewing best value in highway maintenance next year, but already has some experience, since Exeter City Council spent 12 months acting as a pilot authority. 'Having done the pilot, we learned that it is a pretty daunting operation and you have got to start early in gathering the data together, ' comments Allan Johns, assistant director network management at Devon County Council.

'We are thinking now in terms of what data we want to gather.'

Measurement, benchmarking, key performance indicators and continuous improvement are cornerstones of the best value philosophy, but many local authorities are still grappling with measurement mechanisms.

Oxfordshire County Council has agreed a range of KPIs with Babtie and Isis Accord under headings such as use of IT and reduction in administration costs, programming and project management, and working methods. The combined maintenance contract is a Local Government Task Force demonstration project, so the methods and results will be open to scrutiny.

Meanwhile Kent has joined with four other County Councils in the South East Counties Services Improvement group to compare notes on road maintenance.

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