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Maintenance quality fears as Agency changes contracts

Contractors fear motorways and trunk roads will deteriorate because the Highways Agency has decided to award maintenance contracts on a fixed price, lump sum basis.

Maintenance standards relaxed

The Agency has relaxed maintenance standards to accompany the move.

Contractors say margins will be squeezed and that safety will be compromised following the introduction of new Asset Support Contracts (ASCs), which will replace Managing Agent Contractor (MAC) arrangements.

Contractors have submitted tenders for the first ASC which is for Area 2. This covers Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

The ASCs replace MACs and incentivise cost cutting via lump sum and target cost schedules of rates and “outcome” based standards focused on maintaining safety. Under MACs, category one and category two defects had to be repaired within a specified time.

No performance requirement for some road defects

Now, the ASCs say that only potholes more than 40mm deep and 150mm in diameter must be repaired within 24 hours of being reported.

No performance requirement is given for other defects, leaving it up to bidders to decide how they should respond.

The Agency said the new approach has introduced a risk based methodology for carriageway inspection and for making defects safe. “The fundamental point for the Agency is that we will be keeping the network safe,” said a Highways Agency spokesman.

“We have seen with local authority roads that all can look acceptable on the surface while the road structure is deteriorating underneath. The national network is likely to go down the same slippery slope as local roads.”

Asphalt Industry Alliance director David Weeks

“The advantage for bidders is that they can be innovative in choosing for themselves the best methods for achieving the outcomes of maintaining a safe and serviceable road network.”

The Agency has to accommodate a 25% cut in its resource funding for routine maintenance.But contractors have warned that in its rush to make savings the Agency will fail to protect the condition of its road network.

“The risk based approach is welcomed, but with bidding focused on price, lump sum and target cost, risks are too high and margins further reduced from what was already a low level,” said one established MAC contractor.

“You have to wonder whether the Agency will get good value or a level of service acceptable to the public.”

“Lack of clarity”

Others have expressed concern about the lack of clarity from the Agency about how risk is to be allocated.
“If this is not clearly fixed, it is likely to lead to problems later on as compensation elements have been removed,” said another source.

“In terms of the performance requirement, compliance and corporate governance issues more inspections and surveys may be required to give assurance of safety, but the reality is that teams will be out servicing the network less frequently.”

Elements of the Agency’s ASC contract including its revised standards are being retrofitted to existing MAC contracts, leading industry insiders to fear for the structural condition of the principal road network.

“The worry is that this shift to an onus on functionality in place of proper planned maintenance will send motorways and trunk roads the same way as the local road network,” said Asphalt Industry Alliance director David Weeks.

“We would rather see a much longer term view. Other organisations are under the same pressures but not making such radical short term cuts.

“We have seen with local authority roads that all can look acceptable on the surface while the road structure is deteriorating underneath. Gradual erosion starts with something like this new ASC approach. The national network is likely to go down the same slippery slope as local roads.”

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