Local highways resilience in England was robust and adaptable in the face of COVID-19, according to a report commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Based on interviews with officers focusing on COVID and extreme weather resilience, the report found highways authorities well-placed to protect core networks in extreme circumstances and help ensure communities do not become isolated.
In a letter sent to highways officers, Matthew Eglinton, head of local roads maintenance and resilience at the DfT, described the report as 'a good one from a local highways perspective, demonstrating a strong performance and underlining the hard work of you and your respective teams'.
The department is now following up on the research, which focused on the last winter season (2020-21), with a questionnaire that could be used to update the local Incentive Fund self-assessment process.
Authorities have one day left to complete the questionnaire as the deadline is on Friday (9 April). The results will be discussed at the next UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) meeting and shared with colleagues at ADEPT, the Local Government Technical Advisers Group, and the Local Council Roads Innovation Group.
Mr Eglington wrote: 'The DfT and the UKRLG are keen to understand the latest position of all highway authorities and would like you to answer this short questionnaire. Your responses will provide real insight that will support DfT’s understanding of current impacts and long-term investment needs.
'The information will also serve to help support the development of the Highways Maintenance Self-Assessment, aspects of which may help inform what is best practice / Band 3.'
The report suggested the DfT’s self-assessment criteria on resilience needed 'revisiting in terms of their detail and transparency, to ensure consistent and higher levels of resilience and response'.
On the general issue of resilience, the report found the concept of a 'resilient network' is strongly supported. This core network is always protected with authorities adopting strategies of service withdrawal, also termed ‘graceful failure’, in extreme circumstances that would allow services to be protected on the resilient network.
Interviewees said these resilient networks made up around 11% of their roads, with, for comparison, their gritting routes making up around 46%.
Consideration is also 'given to how to build community resilience by avoiding vulnerable communities being isolated or from receiving disproportionately poorer access to the network than others', the report found.
The recommendations of the Quarmby report - commissioned in the aftermath of the terrible winters in 2009 and 2010 - to hold at least 12 days/48 runs of salt reserve right through the season 'appear to now be taken very seriously across the board'.
Public and private sector partners demonstrated openness and flexibility during COVID-19, 'enabling all parties to understand each other’s perspectives'.
'In operational terms this led to the development of many practical and realistic ‘workarounds’ that were largely achieved without the need to adapt existing contractual terms and conditions,' the report found.
Successes during COVID
In several areas authorities reported major success, including in productivity and digitalisation.
'Interviewees pointed out that their output had been exceptional [during the COVID crisis], with one authority for example reporting the delivery of eight fully consulted cycle schemes in the time it would usually have taken to deliver one.'
The switch to more remote working during lockdown also had a major modernising effect on highways departments.
The transition to conferencing software 'may have been on authorities’ to-do lists prior to the pandemic, but the speed of roll out of these technologies and the ramping up of the virtual computing capacity needed to support this roll out have been extraordinary,' the report states.
'One authority was said to have experienced 5-years’ worth of IT upgrading in 3 weeks.'
There was also a modernising effect on highway inspections, with a noticeable shift away from in-person checks to the use of technology and desk-based analysis whether using camera-phone footage or the more sophisticated imagery analysis software on the market.
'Whilst it has undoubtedly proven valuable during the current crisis, the fact that the role of Highways Inspectors includes the management of their authorities’ exposure to Section 58 (Highways Act 1980) claims and reporting on wider conditions (e.g. changes to saturated ground conditions), would seem to support the cautiously experimental shift that is being taken to this new technology in the longer term.'
The report does raise areas for concern and uncertainty during the COVID crisis.
'There were also differing approaches as to where any contractual liability would sit; in some councils the Term Maintenance Contractor informed the client they would be adjusting the service whilst in other councils the contractor was instructed by the Council. The latter approach has been known to trigger compensation events worth in excess of a million pounds.'
There was also a mixed experience of how COVID-19 measures had increased delivery costs, 'with some reporting their contractors had largely absorbed these costs themselves, whilst others reported steady accumulations against their authority’s COVID-19 cost code'.
Mutual aid was highlighted as 'a concept that works in principle, but starts to fall down when applied at the operational level'.
The report argues that it must go beyond traditional government guidance relating to local authorities and statutory agencies assisting each other, towards something 'that the private sector can significantly enhance'.
One interviewee highlighted that when a council needs help the neighbouring authorities are likely to need it as well making the concept difficult to apply in practice.
The report also reveals local political fears hindering co-operation as well as an imbalance in support between the local and strategic network, with Highways England benefitting from more support despite having higher budgets.
On the other hand, regional Highways Alliances were seen as a leading example, collaborating to hold strategic reserves within their wider area', and peer and professional groups were seen as providing valuable support.
'The increasingly centralised, efficient, model of highways operations will be able to cope everywhere without the development of a broader range of proactive mutual aid contingencies, will need to be assessed in time,' the report suggests.
Flooding is regarded as a genuine challenge, which has stimulated risk-based approaches to hotspot management, the report notes.
'The knowledge that “the Big One” may strike, however, still leaves officers nervous that their capabilities will be stretched to breaking point.'
Authorities admitted to a 'poor understanding' of local drainage assets hampering resilience as well as a 'perceived lack of regulatory measures through which authorities can sanction drainage assets owners for failure to do their share of maintenance'.
On top of this much of the infrastructure is only designed around a 1:30yr standard, meaning they could fail in extreme events even if well maintained.
'During these extreme events, therefore, a key function of this proactive maintenance is to extend flood-warning lead time, to increase the window within which the authorities, their partner agencies and at-risk communities can put other measures in place to minimise impacts.'