No matter how you dress it up, local authority funding for transport and infrastructure maintenance over the next few years is going to be pretty thin on the ground.
No change there then perhaps. Because as we know all too well, there’s never really been enough cash available to keep the nation’s local road network in shape and ensure that the public realm is properly looked after.
Even in the good times, it is no secret that budgets for infrastructure have tended to consistently fall lower in the political pecking order than say education and social services. Whether it’s fixing potholes or scraping dead cats off the highway, the impact of lopping the maintenance budgets isn’t always immediately visible.
So as local authorities await the final Local Government Finance Settlement announcement from the government in the next week or so, they will do so in the sure knowledge that all the usual pressures on funding priorities will almost certainly still apply.
Only this year the challenge will be that much harder after the Comprehensive Spending Review cut 30% from local government funds.
Without question the £3bn earmarked by the Department for Transport to spend on local highway maintenance over the next four years is welcome, as are the government’s words of clear support: “With limited resources available,” the Spending Review states, “it is essential that we continue to prioritise highways maintenance, reflecting its economic and social importance to local communities and safeguarding the largest single local public asset.”
Unfortunately it seems that this £3bn also “takes account of the significant scope for efficiencies” so will come largely from savings made elsewhere in highways budgets.
For all the talk about the need to prioritise local roads, they are by no means immune to the need to make a substantial contribution to the cuts demanded.
The challenge for local authorities over the next four years – and beyond – will be to balance this need for greater efficiency and reduced spending with the increasing demand by the public and business to access the vital local road network.
It will not be an easy task and will, as is so often the case today, require civil engineers to rethink what we do and the way that we do it before rolling out the cost effective solutions. The £3M annual best-practice fund promised by government may help local authorities to embrace this change required is interesting if small.
However, what is more likely is for the private sector to build on existing outsourcing models and increasingly step up to the plate.
The good news is that across the UK we have already started to see a number of innovative approaches being made to managing the highway network assets in terms of new asset management techniques and thinking, through use of cross-border alliances and through use of new materials and plant.
The challenge is for this kind of thinking to continue and be driven deeper into the everyday activities of managing local assets. The work is too important for us to fail.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor