Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 32 of Session 2002-03, dated 11 July 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today urged the Highways Agency to do more to reduce the disruption experienced by motorists as a result of maintenance work, and sort out its gritting and emergency response capabilities to prevent chaos on the roads next winter.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 32nd Report of this Session, which examined the condition of the network of motorways and trunk roads in England, delivery by the Highways Agency of the maintenance programme, and the Agency's actions to reduce disruption to the motorist caused by roadworks. Maintenance of almost all of England's 9,500 kilometre road network is the responsibility of the Highways Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Transport. In 2001-02 the Agency spent over £500 million on maintenance work, contracted out to managing agents and maintenance contractors.

The Committee found that the condition of the motorway and trunk road network has improved. The proportion of the network at the end of its life, and therefore requiring reconstruction, has fallen from 14% in the late 1980s to around 5% currently. The surface condition has also improved. The condition of the network does, however, vary significantly between regions with just over 5% of the network in the South West requiring maintenance at March 2002 compared with 9% of the network in the North West. The Agency should set regional road condition targets and review its funding allocations to reduce variations in road conditions across the country.

The Agency has made significant changes to the management and delivery of the maintenance programme but needs to consider further the risks arising from these changes. The Agency has introduced lump sum contracts for routine maintenance, which carry a risk of disputes with contractors over whether desired outcomes have been achieved. The use of target prices for an agreed amount and complexity of work may lead contractors to overstate the work required to achieve higher target prices. The duration of contracts has been extended, and independent supervision of contractors' work has been removed through the merger of the roles of managing agents and maintenance contractors. The Agency should assess the risks associated with its new contracting arrangements as a whole, and set out a strategy for managing these risks.

The Agency is not doing enough to reduce the impact of maintenance work on the motorist. Accident rates at roadworks are much higher than elsewhere on the network, yet the Agency is only now examining whether accident rates are being reduced as a result of measures to improve safety. Although they were successful in reducing by a third the average time taken to complete maintenance work, the Agency has now largely phased out lane rentals and is replacing them with new contract arrangements in the belief that they will incentivise contractors to complete work on time and keep lanes open as much as possible during the course of the work. The Agency will need to demonstrate that these new arrangements are as effective as lane rentals in reducing the time taken to carry out maintenance work and in minimising disruption to the motorist.

The Agency needs to put in place more robust winter maintenance and emergency response procedures. Despite only relatively light snowfalls and access to an early warning system, one of the Agency's contractors in the East of England failed to prevent roads from icing over, causing severe disruption to the network at the end of January 2003. These problems were compounded by poor emergency response, which left many motorists stranded in their vehicles. The Agency needs to strengthen its gritting and emergency response capabilities so that motorists are never left in such a situation again.

The Agency's data on asset condition and maintenance history remain incomplete despite recommendations made by this Committee in 1991 and accepted by the government. In 1991 the Committee highlighted the need for better information about the condition of roadside assets such as lights and drains, but inventories remain incomplete and inaccurate, and information on assets' condition is not available nationally. A new information system was to be in place by April 1992 to remedy deficiencies in data on the maintenance history of roads but data on maintenance work remains incomplete, only covering recent major maintenance schemes. The Agency should now act on these recommendations.

Mr Leigh said today:

"It is good news for motorists that the condition of the motorway and trunk road network managed by the Highways Agency has improved. But it is disappointing that the Agency is not doing more to reduce the disruption experienced by road users as a result of maintenance work. The Agency must examine whether high accident rates at roadworks are being reduced by new safety measures and make sure that new contract arrangements reduce the time taken by contractors to carry out works.

The severe disruption to the network we saw last winter resulted from poor gritting and emergency response during bad weather. The Agency needs to sort out its capabilities so that we do not see this sort of chaos on the roads again."

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