Memorandum by the Civil Engineering Contractors
Association (RM 17)
MAINTENANCE OF MOTORWAYS, TRUNK ROADS AND
LOCAL AUTHORITY PRINCIPAL ROADS
The Civil Engineering Contractors AssociationCECAis
a trade association representing civil engineering contractors,
of all sizes, based throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Its
members' workload constitutes the majority of the output of all
civil engineering work in Great Britain, currently valued at over
£12 billion including the cost of materials incorporated
in the works. Total highway maintenance, ranging from major structural
repairs and renewals to routine and winter maintenance, is one
of the largest components of that figure, accounting for not far
short of a quarter of the total.
That reckoning includes highway maintenance
work by local authority direct labour organisations as well as
by contractors, and it also includes work on local authority non-principal
roads, which are not included in the Committee's present inquiry.
CECA is disappointed by this omission, which
it presumes to have been made on the grounds that, although motorways,
trunk roads and other principal roads account for only 13 per
cent of total public road length in England, or 14 per cent in
the whole of Great Britain, they carry 64 per cent of all road
traffic measured in vehicle kilometres andwhich is of the
greatest importance for the maintenance condition of roads85
per cent of all traffic by goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross
vehicle weight. However, judging by present methods of assessment
employed in England and Wales, some of the worst deterioration
in road maintenance condition, adding to the total maintenance
backlog that has been growing almost continuously for the past
two decades, is reported in respect of categories of road that
are excluded from the inquiry.
The reliability of transport services, a key
determinant of the demand for them, depends heavily on the maintenance
condition of the infrastructure required to support those services.
For many years, however, Britain has been severely neglectful
of the condition of its transport infrastructure, including its
roads, and this has lead to a mounting catalogue of interruptions
For the present, the principal assessment of
the condition of the nation's road networks is the annual National
Road Maintenance Condition Survey (NRMCS) for England and Wales,
which takes as its base the condition of each element of the total
network as it was recorded in 1977.
However, for some time the results of this survey
has been regarded with some scepticism by contractors, when they
have seen it suggested that, whilst there has been a continuing
deterioration in the average condition of all roads, there have
been overall improvements in the condition of certain categories,
principally trunk roads from the mid-1980s until 1977, and both
rural principal and rural classified roads almost continuously
through the 1990s, which they cannot reconcile with the decline
in the volume of work that they have been carrying out on those
roads, and with other indicators.
For example, CECA has noted the findings of
successive Local Transport Surveys carried out by the Institution
of Civil Engineers among local authority engineers. In the ICE's
1999 survey, 86 per cent of local authority respondents indicated
that the backlog of maintenance on the roads for which they were
directly responsible had increased over the previous 12 months,
whereas only three per cent reported a decrease. These figures
are not indicative of any sudden recent shift, but of the continuation
of an already marked decline. The corresponding proportions in
the 1998 survey were 87 per cent and one per cent, and in December
1997 they were 92 per cent and two per cent.
Although this seems most unlikely, it has even
been suggested, from time to time, that there could have been
some political manipulation of the results of the NRMCS. A more
likely explanation is that some of the findings have been affected
by changed criteria, reduced sampling, and "missing"
returns from some authorities. However, these are matters in respect
of which the survey reports, the style of which has shown quite
considerable variation from year to year, have been far from transparent.
Thus, for whatever reason, there is presently
a lack of confidence in the results of the NRMCS; and, in CECA's
estimation, this situation will not be improved until responsibility
for the survey is transferred to an independent Roads Inspector,
that would first of all reassess methods of measuring the condition
of roads. This exercise should take account of the views not only
of highway authorities but also of all stakeholders, including
contractors and consulting engineers, and also the road haulage
industry and motoring organisations. It should pay close attention
to standards and criteria established in other countries. This
proposal is repeated below, in the statement of CECA's views on
further steps to be taken to bring British roads up to the best
If there has been deterioration in the overall
maintenance condition of roads since the original NRMCS benchmarks
were set in 1977, that implies that for more than two decades
the steps taken by British highway authorities to ensure that
roads are kept in good repair have been inadequate.
To a considerable extent, this has been a matter
of inadequate funding, both by central government and from local
authority revenues, lagging well behind the growth of traffic,
and especially that of the volume of goods vehicle traffic, described
in the latest NRMCS report as "responsible for virtually
all pavement wear".
CECA would draw attention to a series of four
charts included in the 1999 NRMCS report that compare road condition
as recorded by the survey, the volume of goods vehicle traffic,
and the level of maintenance expenditure measured at constant
prices, for trunk, principal and non-principal roads. They show
that, in England:
for trunk roads, maintenance spending
rose by more than the growth in goods traffic up to 1993-94, when
it reached around 130 per cent above the 1977-78 level; but then
it fell by around 60 per cent over the next three years, before
showing a marginal recovery in 1997-98
for principal roads, maintenance
spending broadly kept pace with goods traffic growth to 1992-93,
showed a relatively sharp increase in 1993-94, but since then
has been in continuous decline, to stand at under 80 per cent
of the 1977-78 level in 1997-98.
In CECA's view, it is imperative, looking to
the future, and once the present maintenance backlog is cleared,
the index of real spending on road maintenance should at least
match the index of goods traffic, for each broad class of road.
Part of the problem with highway maintenance
in the past has been that actual expenditure has frequently been
less than what was planned or intended. In particular, at local
government level it has been not uncommon, in periods of financial
stringency, for highways budgets to be "raided" to obtain
additional resources for so-called "front line services",
that have ranked higher in the estimation of local taxpayers and
those who represent them.
More recently, however, it has appeared that,
at both national and local level, the public has become much more
concerned about the condition of roads, relative to that of other
public services, and this shift in public opinion has been met
by a very welcome positive response by the Government, and by
a growing number of local authorities.
It is a major advance that the Government has
now admitted the existence of a substantial backlog of highway
maintenance and, within its Ten Year Plan for transport published
in July 2000, has committed itself to providing sufficient resources
first to cure all backlog within the next ten years, then to prevent
Where the maintenance of both strategic and
local roads in England is concerned, it has already reversed the
decline in central government funding. For local roads, it has
taken steps to enable local highway authorities to plan ahead
with greater certainty, replacing the former annual cycle of bids
for central funding with the new regime of five-year Local Transport
Plans, that include maintenance of existing assets as well as
improvements to transport infrastructure and services.
What is good news for authorities in this connection
is also good for contractors. If contractors are to deliver the
best value for money spent on maintenance, they need firmer indications
of future spending, with longer time horizons, in order that they
may better marshal the resources needed to plan and carry out
the work. Too often in the past wide variations in transport infrastructure
operators' expenditure on maintenance of existing assets has led
to considerable variations in contractors' workload, and have
made it difficult for them to promote careers in civil engineering,
and not only recruit but also retain professional staff and skilled
However, both curing the backlog, and ensuring
that it does not re-emerge in the future, is not just a matter
of spending more heavily than before. As is being demonstrated
in both the roads and rail sectors, there is considerable scope
for developing more efficient regimes for assessing maintenance
requirements, and for both managing and executing the necessary
In every case, this should be a co-operative
process, between the network operator and service providers, including
contractors and also consulting engineers. CECA is always willing
to participate in this process, and has established regular liaison
arrangements with the main network operators for this purpose.
In the roads sector, one necessary preliminary
to these improvements, that has not been tackled up to now, is
the establishment of an agreed set of criteria or standards against
which the maintenance condition of all roads may be measured.
As indicated earlier, this is a task that CECA considers should
be delegated to an independent Roads Inspector, taking account
of the views of all stakeholders, and of experience in other countries.
From creating new standards for the measurement
of maintenance condition it is a very short step to establish
key performance indicators for both the management and execution
of highway maintenance, which are essential for the next generation
of contracts. In CECA's view, it is important that these should
be principally "user-based", so the road haulage industry
and motorists' organisations must be involved in the selection
These matters must be addressed with much more
urgency than has been evident in the recent past. The Committee
should recognise that, over a period of several years, there has
been extensive experimentation with new arrangements, and new
forms of contract, for the management and execution of maintenance
of strategic roads in England, involving changing roles and changing
allocations of risk and responsibility between the Highways Agency
as client, the maintenance contractors, and the consulting engineers.
Even so, there has been no progress yet towards
the concept of privately financed maintain and operate contracts
that was flagged up in the July 1998 integrated transport and
roads White Papers, and is mentioned again in the Ten Year Plan.
Contractors remain interested to explore this idea, but this should
happen sooner rather than later, for the overriding priority,
in the interests of value for money, is to get back to a more
stable framework after several years of experimentation.
Similar considerations apply where local roads
are concerned. Here the major concern is with the replacement
of the former requirements for Compulsory Competitive Tendering,
latterly extended to the provision of construction-related professional
services including highways engineeringand resulting in
the "externalisation" of some authorities' highways
engineering departments as well as direct labour organisationswith
"best value" requirements. CECA regrets that it is taking
a considerable time for authorities to work out how to meet these
requirements where highway maintenance is concerned, and they
appear to be receiving relatively little guidance from the centre.
This is a matter that needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
When considering new forms of contractual arrangement,
for maintenance of either strategic or local roads, it is essential
to try to balance different interests in order to secure the best
overall value. CECA makes this point principally because of a
concern that some clients, including some highway authorities,
are being unduly influenced by consultants suggesting scope for
savings in costs of procurement and contract administration by
letting fewer, larger contracts. Where the considerable variety
of civil engineering work is concerned, however, even within the
context of a highway maintenance contract, it is not automatic
that fewer and larger results in the best use being made of all
Future contractual arrangements therefore constitute
another area in which an independent "Roads Inspector"
might usefully participate, just as the Rail Regulator looks at
procurement of railway infrastructure maintenance services.
CECA cannot claim any credit for the idea of
a "Roads Inspector", which belongs to the BRF, but it
has been pleased to lend its support ever since it was appraised
of the idea.
Many of the problems experienced on the road
network in recent years may be traced to the annuality of public
budgets, or to the lack of hypothecation or "ring fencing"
of funds for highway maintenance. CECA welcomes the ways in which
the Government is addressing both of these problems, particularly
in the local transport area with the introduction of five-year
Local Transport Plans and capital funding allocations tied to
However, there will always be some matters that
are better delegated to independent bodies to set standards, set
targets based on those standards, and monitor progress towards
those targets. This is something that has been recognised in respect
of front-line services, including health and education, and other
forms of transport, including rail and air transport. Indeed,
it seems increasingly that roads and road transport are the exceptions.
CECA therefore urges the Committee to support
the creation of an independent "Roads Inspector" at
the earliest opportunity, in order that the advances that are
already being made in respect of other dimensions of highway maintenance,
including medium-term planning and medium-term allocations of
funds, deliver the maximum benefit. It is a proposal that already
has widespread support amongst the business community, and from
many in the political world including local authorities.
To recapitulate, the "Roads Inspector"
would be an independent watchdog, empowered:
to establish a set of clear, user-orientated
standards for road maintenance condition;
to convert these into key performance
indicators for highway maintenance;
to use these indicators as the basis
for performance targets for each highway authority and its maintenance
to monitor performance against these
It should also be a function of the inspectorate
to spell out the financial implications of its targets, and to
help ensure that adequate funding is provided for highway maintenance
and improvements. Devolution notwithstanding, its remit should
extend throughout the United Kingdom, not just England.