Is devolution the way ahead for road maintenance?

Following the Scottish referendum, there has been much debate about devolving decisions not just for Scotland but also for Wales and the English cities and regions. Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA) examines what this could mean for road maintenance.

The main reason for devolution is simple. It is focused on cities and regions wanting to be ‘masters of their own destinies’. As such they believe that they could deliver services more efficiently and effectively as local government is closer, more responsive and more accountable to local residents and businesses and can so more readily direct resources meet local needs.

For road maintenance a main devolution driver is financial certainty and control. Following the government’s 2010 Spending Review, the Department for Transport cut road maintenance budgets by £1.2 billion over four years from 2011 to 2015. Since then it has provided an additional £1.1 billion on nine separate occasions. Such separate funding allocation is inefficient as highway authorities have no certainty for long-term planning.

Realising that uncertainty hampers planning and allocation of resources, the Department has since set out its capital allocation for local road maintenance at £976m a year from April 2015 to April 2021. However, local highway authority spending on road maintenance was 7% lower in 2012-13 compared with 2010-11 after funding for all council services was slashed by the Department for Communities and local Government by 33% in real terms for four years from April 2011 and is set to fall by a further 10% in real terms from 2015-16 to 2020-21.

Devolution could see a step change in local taxation to provide funds for road maintenance. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calculates that on average 17% of the money that UK councils spend is raised through local taxes. The average across the rest of the OECD is 55% with the amount of local taxation controlled locally or regionally being 10 times greater in Canada, 7 times greater in Sweden and nearly 6 times more in Germany. Faced with this imbalance between local control and central government’s unpredictable largesse it is small wonder that local government would like the devolved power to raise local taxes for local services. However, there is a potential problem. It could result in a patch work of well funded, well maintained roads in one UK region that are linked to poorly funded, poorly maintained roads in another. That would not offer the transport connectivity considered essential for economic and social well being. There is also the potential problem the local residents may not wish to be taxed for a service that not only they but also non-tax paying non-residents and non-local businesses benefit from.

For devolution to work there needs to be a high level of cooperation and collaboration between city and county councils. This in turn requires a new way of thinking that encourages long-term planning, innovative working practices, forward thinking asset management and the realisation of the economic benefits of group purchasing. For roads maintenance to a considerable extent this is already being achieved via the creation of a number of local highway authority alliances. These alliances are providing a template for local decision making, access to and allocation of resources. Their collaborative approach means that the potential problem of patchwork road standards should be avoided.

The calls for devolution will continue to grow as cities and counties no long want to look to Whitehall for resources and permission as they gain the belief and confidence that local government is best placed to deliver local services. For road maintenance the shift to the type of regional alliances that could deliver devolved planning and delivery is becoming well established with proven cost and efficiency benefits. However, before we venture down the road of full local control there is a caveat that once Whitehall has passed on the responsibility of not just maintaining roads but funding too it will not take it back if the local commitment and willingness to raise local taxes is found to be wanting.