It’s Wimbledon. Surrounded by screens I am watching a couple of games at once. John McEnroe is commenting. He is famous of course for his comments on court. “You can’t be serious man. You cannot be serious!”
This came to mind because of an open letter from Steve Charmley earlier in the week. He is the deputy leader of Shropshire Council who backed a £5 million annual cut from the highways budget under Peter Nutting’s leadership. Now he has nothing but good news about highways. Our roads are to be manicured as perfectly as the lawn of Centre Court. There will be more money and better and longer lasting repairs.
We have been promised this before. Shropshire Council’s leadership has rarely delivered on highways promises. Can Charmley deliver? Is he serious?
Another measure of performance is the number of enquiries about road maintenance to Shropshire Highways. As can be seen below, contacts over highways problems have been rising, with sharp peaks during and after severe weather.
The level of public satisfaction with the roads is a third measure. It has never been above 50% and has once fallen lower than a quarter of residents.
Shropshire gets as much money from the government as anywhere else in the country for roads maintenance. The problem is that £5 million has been taken out of Shropshire Council’s roads budget for each of the last two years by the council’s cabinet.
Funding for pothole repairs in Shropshire fell by £2.4 million (24%) between 2020/21 and 2021/22. Money for road maintenance fell by £4.1 million (31%).
Deputy leader and head of infrastructure Steve Charmley is now promising to put £40 million back into the highways budget. He says in his open letter:
“Over the next four years we plan to put at least an additional £40m into our highways maintenance budget, and we’re using new technology and new ways of working to help us tackle the problem. We’ve also made changes to the management of our highways service, as have our contractors Kier.”
What is not clear is where the £40 million is coming from. Or whether it is £10 million in each year, or a smaller payment in year one with hope of more money in future years. There will be a report to full council on 15 July on highways investment. But it currently marked as “to follow”. It was always thus on highways. A promise for tomorrow when the expectation is delivery today.
Shropshire Council’s budgets remain very tight. It has huge capital commitments, including to the Shrewsbury shopping centres and the North West Relief Road. The cost of adult social care will continue to rise. Charmley says the council “will continue to lobby the Government for more, and fairer, funding for Shropshire.” The Conservatives on the council have been saying that for years and have got nowhere. There is no sign that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are planning to divert money from urban areas in the red wall to the leafy shires, from marginal seats to Conservative seats that they regard as safe. Especially as the Office of Budget Responsibility says that the government needs an additional £10 billion a year to cover Covid legacy costs. Local government is always last in line for a handout.
That is not the only bit of puff in Charmley’s statement. The council is going to surface dress 800,000 square metres of road. That sound impressive but doing a quick calculation on the dashboard, 800,000 sq m is around 200 km, 4% of the road network maintained by the council.
We have had a lot of promises on highways before. I am sure that Steve Charmley is serious but we will challenge him McEnroe style if he doesn’t deliver.