The rain is dancng on the roads and pavements and tap dancing on my windows as Storm Ciara hits with full force. If Shropshire Council is to be believed, potholes will be popping up on roads across the county like zits on a teenager’s face. Too much rain is the latest excuse by the council for the pothole menace invading the county. Even Tory councillors are complaining.
It has not been a good week for the Shropshire Council cabinet member for highways and transport, Steve Davenport who is having a bumpy ride. Public outrage over the menace of potholes has bounced to a new bumpy height. Shropshire Council is now to pay a consultant £1,000 a day to solve problems that are of its own making. The management of the highways contract has been a mess for years. Now Shropshire Council Lib Dems are calling for Councillor Davenport to resign.
Shropshire Council’s highways service is as broken as many of our roads. In 2018/19, 12% of the county’s B and C roads needed maintenance, well above the national average of 5%. This was not due to bad weather. It was down to lack of investment in the road network.
Shropshire Council pays out for just 1% of pothole claims. It relies on a defence that it has taken the “reasonable care” required under the Highways Act when maintaining roads. Officers talk in meetings about their success in rebuffing pothole claims. It is true they have been successful but whether that success is just can only be decided by the courts. Highley Parish Council has talked about embarking on a legal challenge to the council’s lack of maintenance of highways but I don’t know if it is going ahead.
Under pressure to get on top of the problem, Shropshire Council’s chief executive Clive Wright told the Shropshire Star: “Robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. We have agreed an upscaling of Kier mobilisation” on potholes. But the problems are deep rooted. Keir is not delivering, just as Ringway failed to do so before.
Last November, Steve Brown, the council’s Interim Assistant Director of Infrastructure and Communities, delivered a critical report on Keir’s performance. It was a report potholed with excuses. The Beast from the East – which a Keir spokesman had nonsensically called the “worst winter in living memory”. There were problems getting the new Keir contract off the ground and coordinating with Shropshire Council’s officers. A £10m budget cut had got in the way of delivering the repairs to the county’s roads that are needed.
The report was published as a whistleblower submitted evidence that Shropshire Council does not properly monitor its highway contractors. The council treated this criticism of its work with the disdain that most bureaucracy’s show to people who are calling them out for poor performance. It ignored it.
We were assured in the November scrutiny report that matters had improved. The restructuring of the council’s Highways and Transport had been achieved, albeit late. There were still problems to solve. But most of the problems identified “have now either been addressed by Kier or are in the process of being delivered.”
That is evidently not the case. Faced with political pressure from councillors of all parties, the council announced it was going to fix 500 potholes day. It would spend £5m on resurfacing 26 roads. And, replete with stilted images of the portfolio holder Steve Davenport touching the road, the council announced it is investing a further £1.3 million maintaining and improving roads.
The council has also recognised that its management structure is not coping with the challenge of managing the deteriorating state of the county’s roads. That’s why the chief executive has decided to retain a consultant at £1,000 a day for six months to sort out the problems. Although the cost is controversial, consultant will be worth it if he sorts out the wreckage of Shropshire Council’s highways operation.
The responsibility for this debacle lies with the portfolio holder for transport Steve Davenport. He should resign.