Shropshire Council made national headlines with its decision to pay a highway consultant £1,000 a day to fix its highways management and resolve the plague of potholes. Lib Dem councillors on the council have called for Steve Davenport, the cabinet member for highways, to resign. He says he will not resign and the consultancy money will come from his underspent staff budget. Want he hasn’t explained is why the council has assessed itself as a top performer on highways allowing it to draw down Whitehall funding, even though it has been underspending.
If Shropshire Council is a top performer on highways “then I’m a banana”, as Ian Hislop once infamously said.
Next Thursday, Lib Dems on Shropshire Council will call for the resignation of Steve Davenport, the councillor responsible for highways and transport in the council’s cabinet. I am sure that we will not win as council leader Peter Nutting will direct Conservative councillors to vote against the motion. Nearly always Tories do as they are told when it comes to voting.
For me, this argument is not about money or politics. It is about how the highway operation is led and run.
Steve Davenport says there is no problem with the £1,000 a day bill for a consultant. He has underspent on staff costs and will use that to fund the bill. But why is Shropshire Council underspending on staff costs when the highways budget has been cut by £15 million and our roads are falling apart? The answer lies in the failure of leadership and management.
The government asks highways authorities to rank themselves on a banding of 1 to 3 for how effectively they manage our highways, where one is rubbish and three is top class. Back in 2015, Shropshire Council declared itself Band 2 with the ambition to reach Band 3.
A report by the authoritative Transport Network says that Shropshire Council is now Band 3. Really? Band 3 status means that Shropshire Council will receive £2,765,000 from the Department for Transport this financial year through the government’s Incentive Fund for improving highways. If was in Band 2 (improving) it would receive only £829,000. No money is awarded to poorly performing Band 1 highways authorities. We need the money from Whitehall but do we deserve it?
If our highways are managed to the highest standard, why must we pay £1,000 a day on a consultant to fix the broken highways management?
Shropshire Council’s highways operations have always been a disaster zone. We once had Ringway, which had to resurface Lower Corve Street three times. Kier has been in charge of highway maintenance since April 2018. At the time Steve Davenport said:
“We’re confident we have found the best contractor for this work, one that will help us to deliver the best possible highways maintenance services for the people of Shropshire. Since the contract was awarded last autumn we’ve been working closely with Kier to ensure a smooth transfer [from Ringway].”
In recent days, we councillors have been told that robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. Clive Wright the chief executive says that he expects to see an “up scaling” of Kier mobilisation over the next few weeks. That’s almost two years after the Kier contract began. And the contract has been as smooth as many of the county’s roads.
Shropshire Council should take a different approach. Instead of continuing a contract to the troubled construction and service company, all minor roadworks should be taken back in house and given to local firms. That will benefit the local economy. It will also reduce bureaucracy. It will give the council’s highways managers and operatives the day to day control over their operations they need and are qualified for.
Big and specialists schemes like bypasses and bridges will need to be tendered out to bigger companies. That’s fine. They require a level of expertise and resource than may not be available locally.
Someone in Shropshire Council needs to get a grip on highways. That must be the cabinet portfolio holder for highways. That’s why we Lib Dems are calling for Steve Davenport to return to the backbenches.
Extract from Clive Wright email to councillors on the highways consultancy
In order to continue to improve the services it offers, the department is benefitting from the assistance of an independent consultant for six months until the end of June. He brings significant expertise and experience of running very successful highways operations in other councils and will allow our employees to develop their knowledge and skills while he is with us. However, every expert comes at a cost, and while some of the reports state a day rate that is correct and commensurate to others with his knowledge and skills, his role is being inaccurately reported in the media.
He is providing advice on how to make crucial improvements based on his experience of running very successful highways operations elsewhere. This is much more expansive than merely fixing potholes. It’s about getting engagement and communications right, ensuring we have effective processes, configuring our computerised system properly, making sure that our contractors deliver quality work, ensuring we have the right number of staff with the right skills, and that the council gets value for money.
We will all benefit from his involvement with the Council, by ensuring we can provide a highways service we can be proud of, by repairing, maintaining and improving Shropshire’s roads more quickly, effectively and efficiently. This means that we will make better use of local residents’ money now and in the future and ensure that our roads meet the standards expected by all that use them.