Clarifying accountability, investing in capabilities, and rebuilding business models for better performance were the three key messages STSG Secretary Derek Halden made to the Rural Affairs and Connectivity Committee scrutiny of Scottish Government road maintenance budget proposals. Accountability about road condition and investment plans could be made more open so that debates about road condition are better informed.
If people perceive road and bridge condition to be in decline, they need to know who has decided that maintenance can be deferred and why. Currently all of the public authorities state that better maintenance would be better value for society, yet the authorities all blame each other for the funding shortfall. The democracy campaign group My Society had been campaigning for better accountability for years through their “Fix My Street” defect reporting platform. Some road maintenance authorities set targets for responding to these public concerns, but change has been slow. The recommendations for public sector reform, such as the 2011 Christie Commission should work, but successive reports from Audit Scotland including their 2018 report on road maintenance show that little progress has been made.
There has been a worrying decline of skilled staff within many authorities and a fall in road maintenance budgets wholly inconsistent with the principles of best value. There are already clear asset management action plans set out by leading authorities which if supported with funding would lead to centres of excellence across the country. Authorities able to rely on effective road maintenance delivery by these centres of excellence would get better value for money and staff would be working in organisations able to nurture career development in leading practice. Current staff shortages result from people being unwilling to work in jobs where they are not supported and cannot deliver high standards.
If the funding allocated to road maintenance is linked with measurable performance improvements, then Government will be able to have confidence that they are making the right spending decisions. Although roads policy states that making better use of existing assets before building new roads, the funding decisions have gone the opposite way with cuts in maintenance funding. If the government could set out a clear pathway to a circular zero waste road economy then budgets can be set by the needs of top level policy drivers such as the governments declaration of a climate crisis.
Road technology has been improving steadily but current procurement is largely driven by cost rather than quality. When footpaths are badly reinstated, or road surfacing defects damage vehicles, there are costs for society much greater than road maintenance budgets. Procurement practice has been improving across many supply chains to reward performance improvements, not only cost. However, practices for road and bridge maintenance are in need of reform.
Budget decisions made by the Parliament are a good opportunity to sharpen accountability with better data, invest in the organisations that have the capabilities to make improvements and reward better performance.