As lobbying ahead of the looming General Election gathers pace, much focus in our world will inevitably centre around the big, national infrastructure projects.
Much energy will be devoted to reasserting the need for capacity enhancing projects and programmes such as High Speed 2, Hinkley Point C and Smart Motorways.
But we will do well to remember issues closer to home, the issues facing our local road network. This makes up most of the national highway network, and provides us with those crucial links between home, school, hospital and all the other things central to our lives and livelihoods.
And the pressure on the local network is severe.
OK, it is probably not as severe as the pressure on the NHS where, in the two weeks over Christmas, 20,962 A&E patients waited up to 12 hours to be treated - almost four times as many as the 5,573 over the same period in 2013. And it is possibly not as severe as the pressure on schools where 18% nationwide are now cited as being over capacity - and that’s before the expected arrival of 900,000 extra pupils in English schools over the next decade.
But it is under severe strain. The one time road maintenance “catch-up” cost is now estimated at £12bn.
Investment is needed, and the government is aware: it has pledged £6bn over six years for local highways. But this investment is vulnerable. It could easily fall foul of a post-election spending review - after all, those pressures on the NHS and education, to name just two, are not going away.
How can we secure this cash? Well, that £6bn includes a £578M fund to reward those that can demonstrate efficiencies. And, as we report this week, this fund could kick-start a revolution in highway maintenance and change Britain’s make-do-and-mend approach to local road maintenance forever.
The cash will be used to reward those local authorities able to demonstrate they are repairing their roads efficiently and carrying out cost-effective improvements in line with the recommendations of the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme.
Local authorities will be asked to self-assess their approach and those who have embraced the concept of asset management will be top of the tree. Embracing collaborative working and supply chain engagement will also score well.
And that is exciting the industry. Because it is going to force local authorities to really understand their assets and force local politicians to listen to the experts. Which in turn will lead to more proper, engineered, long-term solutions. And less filling of potholes - over and over again.
The sum of £578M isn’t going to solve all of the issues with the network overnight. But it is a great chance to show the ultimate budget-holder - the government - that investing in local highways is no longer throwing good money after bad. It is a chance to show the kind of innovative, technology-led solutions that can be developed when the environment is right.
As an industry we’ve probably got six months before that £6bn is seriously scrutinised. That’s six months to prove it is money well spent. Good luck!
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor