Despite the clear restrictions on what council business can be conducted in the run up to an election, Shropshire Council’s administration has scheduled a meeting on its contractors’ performance on highways maintenance next Tuesday. It seems that the council is not aware that highways are a political issue and a battleground in many council areas around the county.
Among the reports to be considered by the Place Overview Committee next Tuesday is one on the struggling highways contractor Kier, the company responsible for delivering highways repairs at a cost of £27m a year. The report admits to three years of failings but makes the case improvements are being made. This is a smoothie view of highways. If only our highways were smooth.
This meeting of the Place Overview Committee should not be held. There is no business on the agenda that could not wait until the June meeting.
Council officers are being placed in an invidious position where they are presenting reports that, if more sharply written, would expose the consistent failing of the Conservative administration to manage the county’s highways in a timely and competent fashion.
The meeting, just one month before polling day, will inevitably get political.
The Place Overview Committee has form on this. At its last meeting, Deputy Council leader Steve Charmley announced the Conservative highways manifesto. I objected with a point of order but that was no more acknowledged by the Conservative chair who had so obviously expected the intervention. Appalled by the hijacking of the so-called independent scrutiny and overview process, I protested to the chief monitoring officer, who initially rejected my complaint. But after a review of evidence, an email warning councillors not to announce policies or mention political parties during council meetings was issued.
You can’t discuss highways without discussing the political decisions that have stripped £10 million from the budget. You can’t discuss highways without noting that the council’s appointment of Kier as the lead contractor has yet to deliver. Just as the Ringway contract before it failed to deliver.
It beggars belief that Shropshire Council cannot get straightforward matters like highways right. The council consistently blames the weather for poor performance. Weather, with cold, hot and wet extremes, is normal. What should not be normal is Shropshire Council’s failure to anticipate adverse weather.
Here are a couple of extracts from the report on Kier:
“The highway service recognises that the first two years of the Kier contract have been challenging and performance have been disappointing at times. There are some mitigating factors but there is significant and tangible evidence that there have been significant service delivery improvements over the last six months.
“The continuing deterioration of the road network and the resultant increased demand for requests for service does however significantly stretch existing resources and to some extent budgets. These operational improvements aren’t necessarily visible to members of the public who understandably associate highway condition with council performance.”
That ducks the issue that it is Shropshire Council that is responsible for most of the county’s road network. Fifteen per cent of the county’s roads are in poor condition, as are more than one in five rural roads (22%).