Devon Highways

Ever wondered why Highways fill potholes in poor weather conditions, and then the job has to be done again? It’s down to the ‘liability to repair’, a madness of the outsourcing system.

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The most common complaint in parish councils the last few weeks has been that pothole repairs by Skanska, Devon’s Highways contractor, are too often failing, leading to the same hole being filled two or even three times in a short period. (While of course, holes which are not classed as ‘safety defects’ are left unfilled, as per the contract the Council has given them.)

When I asked about this,  I was told that while Skanska’s work is mostly of a good standard, they are filling too many holes when roads are pouring with water or frozen. And the explanation for this – they have a contractual ‘liability to repair’ within certain deadlines (often ‘next day’). It seems to be another madness of the outsourcing system – if Devon didn’t need to specify the contractor’s liabilities so tightly, a more sensible approach to repairs could be adopted. Bring it all back in-house?

The high price of outsourcing: effects of Devon Highways contract changeover still being felt one year on

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A full year after Skanska replaced South West Highways as the maintenance contractor for Devon Highways, the effects of the changeover are still being felt. Draining cleaning equipment ordered by the new contractor is still arriving, 12 months after they took over.

7975873195_5fc2c2f845_k-768x576It is clear that all involved greatly underestimated the transition costs. A ‘demobilising’ effect in the last 6 months of the old contract was followed by low operational efficiency in the first couple of months of the new one, and Skanska have spent the last year learning how to do the job. (SWH, which originally took over Devon’s own direct labour department, had been doing it for 20 years).

The difficulties of transferring 250 staff to the new contractor and of managing the software transition were also underestimated. It all makes me wonder if provider changeovers – even when they’re planned and orderly and there isn’t a Carillion-style failure – aren’t a major downside of outsourcing Council services.

While we’re thinking about this, do remember that planning for Devon’s NHS Integrated Care System (formerly known as the Accountable Care System) has included provision for the effects of ‘provider failure’. Is this acceptable? Delays in filling potholes are one thing – delays in the NHS caused by costly handovers between providers could be quite another, even if planned.

I will be a member of a task group on Highways set up yesterday by Devon County Council’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee.

Devon Highways is reviewing its ‘safety defect’ policy towards roads and potholes

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The Chief Officer for Highways, Meg Booth, presented a report to Devon County Council’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee this week which says that ‘Work is ongoing with Skanska [the Council’s contractor] using a “Systems Thinking” approach to review the management of safety defects.’

I welcomed this and told Ms Booth that the existing policy, under which only potholes 300mm+ wide or 40mm+ deep at the edge are regarded as ‘safety defects’ – leading to one pothole being filled while one next to it is left – has no public support. I have discussed this with every one of the 9 parish councils in Seaton and Colyton and and the policy has no credibility either with councillors or members of the public. Let’s hope we will now see a more comprehensive policy towards potholes!