Highways innovation held back by potholes and headlines, DfT director says

31/05/2018

The director of local transport at the Department for Transport (DfT) has warned that the UK is ‘not very good at systems-wide thinking’, which could hold the highways sector back as it seeks to develop innovation and embrace the connected world.

Graham Pendlebury also revealed that the constant pressure of the so-called pothole crisis and the fear of bad headlines prevented the department from trying new ideas sometimes.

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Speaking at the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (TAG) president’s conference, he said: ‘I do wonder if we are still in the foothills of the technological revolution…We are nervous about using new technology where there is the potential of failure. I know there are a number of ideas that we have put to ministers that didn’t see the light of day. If it went wrong it would get the wrong sort of headline.

‘Somehow as a country we are not very good at systems-wide thinking. I was very impressed when I was over in France recently, that there was a commonality of approach between the private sector and different state institutions to take a more systematic approach to looking at the problems of their infrastructure. In a way we are a little more fragmented. That is partly a problem with the fact we have so many highway authorities and a proliferation of bodies. I think we are a bit all over the place sometimes.

'I am very keen to get that systems wide-thinking approach built in to the department. I guess the other problem [with developing innovations], always the elephant in the room, is around costs. We know that financial circumstances in central and local government are very tight and there is always a risk that you will go for the cheapest option.

‘If we say to ministers let’s spend a few million on our pothole money in some experiment that may or may not work, it’s kind of a hard one. When you can say you could have filled x amount of potholes with that money in a tried and trusted, but probably not the most effective, way.’

This is not to say however that the DfT, the highways sector public and private and top universities are not doing some ground breaking research and applied technologies, and Mr Pendlebury highlighted some of its good work. 

‘We obviously believe that the time is right for more use of new technology to support highway maintenance and resilience right across the transport sector new tech and ways of working are transforming how you get things done.’

He referenced the Pothole Spotter and the BridgeCat, both of which the DfT is trialling with private companies and local authorities, and revealed new work being done by Cambridge University on highways.

‘I met senior academics and PhD students in Cambridge working on what to me seemed pretty astonishingly powerful tools for mapping and assessing the state of bridges and roads and other structures. Westminster Council has been involved in this.

'Some of this involves 3D digital mapping to an astonishing level of realism. Other tools involves beams that came down from satellites to measure asset condition to a mm scale. They did before and after on Tadcaster Bridge, which demonstrated that you could see several weeks before the bridge collapsed where the weak points were and the fact that is was going to collapse. Fascinating stuff.'

He also pointed out the progress being made in asset management and best practice in the local authority sector and revealed 

Mr Pendlebury outlined a vision for a total audit of local roads to ensure we have the best platform to advance asset management and a long-term strategy for roads.

'My personal vision is that using new technology we should be able to undertake a complete national audit of local roads in the country to a very fine degree, so we truly understand where the problems are and how to fix them. I think some other countries are a bit further down the line than us, for example in France, where both national and regional roads administrations have introduced very fine grain audits on their networks.'

'We are pleased to see from the 2018/19 returns that many authorities have embraced the Incentive Fund and more have fallen into Band 3 than last year. I think this does show continuous progress. We are now thinking about the next steps for the incentive element for 2019-20 and how we can continue to drive forward standards. Steve Berry [head of local road maintenance at DfT] is keen to hear from TAG and others on this. It’s also key that every authority has good asset data. It’s even more important as we move to a risk-based approach.'

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