We often despair about the state of our highways. A bumpy ride has become the norm as potholes and road defects grow as fast as Shropshire Council can sort them out.
Council leaders have been obsessive in their view that only the private sector can deliver quality highways work. Yet the experience in Shropshire of managing highway maintenance through major contactors has proved as jarring as driving on our roads. The initial 2011 contract with Ringway delivered poor quality and late maintenance. There were high hopes of improvement when Kier took over in 2018 but at a recent committee meeting council officers admitted the company is still struggling to deliver timely and quality work after three years. The Conservatives describe the task of getting improvements as being like turning an oil tanker around. Thank goodness they don’t run the Suez Canal!
In 2011, the council signed a £240 million contract with Ringway for highways maintenance. As the Shropshire Council’s press release made clear at the time, the deal was only about saving money, not improving roads. It transferred hard working staff to Ringway under TUPE and many of the best left for a more rewarding career elsewhere. Ringway was not up to the job. It had to resurface Lower Corve Street three times. Council officers despaired because they knew that if routine highways work was brought inhouse it would be done properly.
Then there was an air of excitement when Kier was appointed in 2017 to replace Ringway. There were presentations galore in Shirehall. It was like Kier had won the Oscars. Alas, it was all showbiz on the part of Shropshire Council and Kier has failed to deliver the contract to the required deadlines and quality. Officers told a recent Place Overview Committee:
“The highway service recognises that the first two years of the Kier contract have been challenging and performance have been disappointing at times.”
A recent review, which was described as “difficult”, found “significant inconstancies across operational depots. Areas of poor performance that were impacting on the productive output quality, efficiency and operational effectiveness”.
When Shropshire Council issued an invitation to tender for the contract, it did not insist that local contractors should be used:
“The contract offer which Kier bid for placed little priority on this local service approach which often matters more to stakeholders. This has not been visible, prioritised or been seen to matter which has undoubtedly contributed to the perspective of the service and understandable frustrations.”
That failure has allowed Kier to draw in workers in from across the country for the most routine of tasks, rather than using local contractors.
There have been improvements. For example, 72% of potholes are now repaired permanently on the first visit. That’s up from 30% but the target is meant to be 100%. The effort to get improvements from Keir has required it to restructure its management, reviews of performance and Shropshire Council paying a consultant £1,000 a day leading to a huge management load for the council. Keir has been told to improve its communication, to engage with residents and road users better, to speed up minor repairs to fences and signs and to improve gulley clearance.
Why did this take three years to get this in place when Kier is an experience highways contractor and Shropshire Council is rated as a Level 3 authority for maintain highways? Level 3 is the best performing level – although it is based on self-assessment.
The council’s portfolio holder for transport, Steve Davenport, addressed the Place Overview committee a couple of weeks ago. Construction News reported the meeting:
Shropshire Council member for highways lead Steve Davenport said the council’s performance on highways works were not fit for purpose prior to Kier taking on the contract. “It’s like slowing an oil tanker down, turning it round and sending it the other way. It’s a large, big problem but I feel confident we are going in the right way. Shropshire Council officers are working well with Kier, and indeed [highways consultants] WSP.”
Three years to slow an oil tanker down and turn it around? That goodness Davenport is not in charge of the Suez Canal!
Shropshire Council has been responsible for the highways in the unitary area for 12 years. It is only slowly recognising that it is its own operation that it needs to turn around. One of the first ways of doing that should be by bringing routine highways maintenance back inhouse.