The Conservative Party has demanded the creation of an independent roads inspectorate to ensure local authorities and the Highways Agency perform to an agreed set of standards or face penalties.
This week we ask: Does the UK need an independent roads inspectorate?
CECA was founded at almost the same time that the British Roads Federation was launching its proposal for a roads inspectorate, now adopted by the Conservative Opposition. CECA has supported the idea as long as it has known of it.
For far too long we have paid insufficient attention to the maintenance condition of our roads and a large part of the problem has been the absence of any central responsibility for setting standards and ensuring they are followed. Of course, we have had the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey, but that has only ever looked at physical condition, not on a consistent basis over time, and seemingly has never had any significant influence on expenditure.
It needs to be remembered that two of the factors most responsible for the poor state of our roads are the annuality of public budgets and the lack of 'ring fencing' of funds for highway maintenance. Creation of a roads inspectorate would be of limited value unless these factors were modified. This is something that the Government is, thankfully, addressing - for example, in its plans for five year funding of English local authorities' local transport plans. But an independent body is needed to assess whether the highway maintenance components of those plans are adequate.
What we need is an independent minded watchdog, empowered first to establish a set of clear, user oriented performance indicators, then to use them to set targets for each highway authority and to monitor the authorities' performance against their targets.
It should also be a function of the inspectorate to spell out the financial implications of its targets and to help ensure that adequate funding is provided for highway maintenance and improvements. And, devolution notwithstandiing, its remit should extend throughout the UK, not just England.
Funds from central Government for local authorities to improve and maintain their roads have been cut significantly in recent years.
Over the last 10 years, capital funding for highway improvements has virtually halved and there was insufficient highway maintenance revenue funding.
Local authorities have not been able to deliver the sort of improvements or services the public would have liked. They have in general terms spent the money made available to them and not directed it to other services. However, local roads are now in their worst condition since highway records started in 1978, as revealed by the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey.
There is evidence that the Government is now addressing this under funding with the announcement of its 10 year transport plan in July and significant extra money is expected over the next few years.
Many new inspection regimes are being brought forward for local government. There is a veritable army of independent auditors to look at progress on initiatives such as best value. At Dorset County Council we are heavily involved in the Rethinking Construction initiative and a number of auditors are monitoring the demonstration projects we are carrying out.
What does the public think?
Surveys carried out by MORI reveal that local highway congestion and the state of the roads are very important matters for the public nationwide. Local authority consultations with members of the public in their own areas are revealing similar results. Local Transport Plans submitted in July reflect these community aspirations and set out programmes of work for the next five years. Progress on implementation will be carried out by Government.
My own view is that we should see the effects of the additional funding being made by the Government and the changes local authorities are implementing, before we introduce a further level of inspection.
Shadow transport minister Bernard Jenkin demanded an independent road inspectorate at the recent Tory Party conference. He is expected to reveal more detailed proposals in December. Under the proposal, local authorities found to be performing under standard on criteria such as congestion, maintenance and noise would face being stripped of their highway authority role and replaced by private operators.
In a recent poll of NCE readers 51% of respondents believed an independent roads inspectorate would improve management of the UK road network, 36% said no and 13% were undecided.
The annual National Road Maintenance Condition Survey has shown that local authorities have suffered from chronic under funding in road maintenance in the last 20 years.
Under local authorities' funding regime, funds for roads can be raided and spent on other public services.