Every year, local authorities come under renewed pressure to maintain and improve the UK’s road infrastructure. Indeed some would argue that public satisfaction with road maintenance is at an all-time low, with an ongoing stream of research on the cost of potholes to UK taxpayers – the most recent suggesting that pothole damage cost UK drivers £686m last year – ensuring that pothole protests remain high on the agenda.
Of course this week’s announcement that 100 councils will receive £50m in funding to help remove around 943,000 potholes, as part of the wider £250m announced in the budget, will be welcomed by the public and local authorities alike.
However with potholes on the rise, local authorities will have to consider how best to minimise their risk exposure and manage the budgets to ensure long term pothole and road maintenance. Proper risk management processes should therefore be put in place to mitigate both the reputational and financial damages associated with pothole management.
Risk management will become especially important as the revised Code of Practice for Highways Maintenance, due for publication this year, is set to give local authorities much greater autonomy in how they manage their highways assets.
To best minimise the pothole risk, we have put together the following top tips as a guide for local authorities:
National and local influences can push councils towards a short-term strategy for maintaining roads. Managing with less funding, councils need to be tougher in prioritising long-term demands over short-term demands to minimise costs and deliver value for money.
Applying asset management principles will help councils make decisions on which roads to maintain and their treatment based on need rather than the size of the maintenance budget.
To deliver this effectively, councils need to develop inventories that are fit for purpose. A dataset needs to be defined which should include asset size, condition and location but could also be expanded to include details such as age, material and costs. councils should also explore additional means of collecting asset data, such as asking utility companies to collect data when undertaking roadworks and ensuring that any public reporting is fed into the inventory.
Maintenance standards, which will include inspection and repair priorities, need to be clearly identified and take account of local needs as well as national guidance. Where standards differ from those set out in the Highways Code of Practice, they will need to be supported through a risk based decision process and signed off as policy by members.
A consistent approach to defect identification and repair response must be followed. Inspection manuals should be used to support the implementation of maintenance policies. Formal training is also required to ensure highway inspectors have an understanding and level of competence in relevant legislation, local policy, highway engineering and material performance.
Network managers, maintenance managers and inspectors can be called to court to provide evidence in civil liability claims. The provision of court room skills training should not only help those individuals prepare for such eventualities, but will also ensure that a robust defence to an action can be presented.
Accurate and detailed records need to be maintained for every highway inspection. Records need to consistently provide evidence that the road/street was inspected, if any defects were observed, when the inspection took place and who undertook the inspection. Where repairs are needed the date of completion must be captured. The use of data capture devices as part of an electronic maintenance management system should be considered.
Partnership with contractors can help manage risk and liabilities providing suitable control measures are in place. Arrangements need to be in place to monitor and address poor performance. Protocols should be agreed to address claims issues including information sharing, communication and claims data ownership. Records of past contractors should be kept if needed for reference at a later date.
There are thousands of utility company openings per highway authority every year. No matter how good the reinstatement is, it will introduce weakness into the highway reducing the lifespan of the asset. Highway authorities and utility companies must therefore aim to minimise the number of street works through better communication and coordination, whilst also encouraging the use of trenchless technologies. Monitoring of reinstatements through activities such as core sampling will help improve standards.
Of course, no pothole is the same and highway maintenance can never be prescriptive. Local authorities should therefore work with their insurance partners to ensure that the best risk management measures have been put in place for their communities.
Paul Tombs is head of public services at Zurich Municipal