Northamptonshire repairs backlog ‘spiralling out of control’

13/08/2019
Dominic Browne

Northamptonshire’s highways repair backlog could be spiralling out of control and increasing by more than half a million pounds a week, according to the famous 'Mr Pothole' and another informed roads campaigner.

Mr Pothole - whose real name is Mark Morrell and who has made numurous TV appearences to campaign on road maintenance - together with experienced network manager and highways consultant David Gaster, have carried out a series of investigations and say they have found causes for concern in terms of policy, practice and safety.

A key fear is that the troubled authority could be stuck in a trap of making short-term decisions at the expense of long-term value, further exacerbating its difficulties.

Cash strapped Northamptonshire only just announced it had managed to balance its budget this summer after effectively bankrupting itself.

The authority had to take the extraordinary measure of issuing a Section 114 notice in February last year, under which no new expenditure is permitted beyond statutory spending and the safeguarding of vulnerable people.

According to Freedom of Information requests put in by Mr Pothole, the backlog stood at £381m in 2013; this shot up to £465m excluding street lighting and possibly other assets by 2018 - meaning the maintenance backlog is increasing by several hundreds of thousands a week at least.

It is believed the backlog could be much higher, as according to Mr Pothole and David Gaster, an experienced network manager who has worked with London and Metropolitan boroughs plus counties, many defects on the road network simply don’t show up on inspection reports.

The irregularities between filed reports and visual inspections carried out by the pair are sometimes up to 20 potholes.

The council only moved to the new code of practice for well-managed highway infrastructure in March this year, four months after the deadline.

Mr Gaster said: ‘Many potholes over 50mm deep are left for up to six months prior to repair on carriageways, with 29mm defects in footways being also left for up to six months.’

An example of the apparently short-term strategies and procedures at the council came with the closure of Farthinghoe Bridge on the A422 last year.

A 2016 inspection report found cracks appearing, a lack of waterproofing and vegetation growing on the structure – a potential sign of damaging water ingress.

(Picture shows Farthinghoe Bridge damage in 2016, when it was 'not of great concern'.)

One note said ‘previously the cracks to the abutments have been grouted, however these have also cracked and there is some minor displacement’ - suggesting that minor, makeshift repairs were not holding.

Overall the report found: ‘The structure is in a poor condition with some defects that should be addressed. The structure would benefit from having an assessment, as the structure carries the A422. Repairs are required to the arch barrel and abutments, an options study should be raised to establish the best course of action for repairs.’

The costs at the time to carry out a study and cut the vegetation would have been £1,750.

However a letter from the council to Mr Gaster revealed that ‘although there was damage seen in 2016 it was not of great concern to us’. The council added that it had ‘not carried out any repair works since the findings in 2016’.

(Picture shows Farthinghoe Bridge damage in 2018, when it was of concern.)

Less than two years later in mid-August 2018, the structure had to be closed completely causing major disruption in the area. The repairs then cost around £440,000 and sent motorists on major detours for five months.

Mr Pothole described the situation at the council as ‘scandalous and appalling’. He added that the council’s inspection and repairs policy notably on the highways itself was indefensible.

In response to enquiries by Highways, a council spokesperson acknowledged that ‘the highways repair backlog is increasing’ but did not give an exact figure as to how much.

‘We continue to maintain the safety of the highway network in accordance with our Highways Network Management Plan,’ they added.

On the Farthinghoe Bridge debacle, the spokesperson said ‘frequent inspections of the bridge were undertaken although no formal records of the inspections were retained’. Record keeping for inspections and decision making is an essential part of the risk-based approach and a lack of records could leave a council open to civil court claims.

The spokesperson added: ‘At a later inspection the capacity of the bridge was assessed to have fallen below 3 tonne and at this point the decision was taken to close the bridge until a repair could be carried out. This has now been completed and the road re-opened.’

Finally on the issue of irregularities in inspection, the council said: ‘The inspections that were made previously in Radstone Road were Safety Inspections. The purpose of these inspections is to identify defects likely to create danger or serious inconvenience to the users of the highway network or the wider community, so it is likely that other less serious defects will not be recorded during these inspections. Safety Inspections are undertaken in accordance with Northamptonshire Highways Safety Inspection Manual.’

Highways jobs

Project Engineer (Permanent)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Project Engineer (Fixed Term)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Contract Supervisor

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
£31,013 - £36,486 depending on skills, knowledge and experience
The role of Contract Supervisor (Waste and Street Cleansing) will require you to support ambitious plans to provide services for residents Richmond upon Thames, London (Greater)
Recuriter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Flood Risk Manager

Birmingham City Council
£43,662 - £54,574
The role requires the post holder to be the lead professional for the Authority’s Flood Risk Management and drainage function Birmingham, West Midlands
Recuriter: Birmingham City Council

Head of Highways & Transport

Lewisham London Borough Council
up to £72,705
As our lead expert on highways and transport, you will set the direction and lead on all transport related matters Lewisham, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Lewisham London Borough Council

Ugobus Driver (multiple positions)

Essex County Council
Up to £18938.0 per annum
Please note that we have permanent, fixed term and relief contract opportunities on a part time, job share and flexible working basis. The salary is u England, Essex, Chelmsford
Recuriter: Essex County Council

Assistant Director

Hounslow London Borough Council
Up to £82k
Working across a wide range of high profile direct services, the emphasis for this role is on partnership working. Hounslow (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Hounslow London Borough Council

Head of Parks and Environmental Services

Harrogate Borough Council
£58,778 - £61,882
You will have experience at a senior level in the management and delivery of front line services relevant to the functions Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Recuriter: Harrogate Borough Council

Programme Technician/Engineer

Norfolk County Council
£29,636 - £31,371 per annum
This is a challenging position which involves working across wide ranging activities. Norwich, Norfolk
Recuriter: Norfolk County Council

Principal Transport Planner – 2 posts (Warrington Waterfront Western Link)

Warrington Borough Council
£40,760 - £43,662 plus essential car user allowance
We are looking to form a new Warrington Waterfront Western Link Team and we are looking to fill a number of key posts Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Director of Integrated Transport

Liverpool City Region
Salary up to £124,848
The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is embarking on a search for an exceptional individual with the passion to deliver on our vision Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Region

Highways Manager

Oxford Direct Services
G11
Oxford Direct Services
Recuriter: Oxford Direct Services

Data Entry Administrator

Telford & Wrekin Council
£18,795 - £19,171
Telford & Wrekin’s Public Protection Service is looking for an enthusiastic and self-motivated Data Entry Administrator Telford, Shropshire
Recuriter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Transport Planner

Camden London Borough Council
£33,122 to £38,423
You’ll have previous experience of working in a transport/planning/accessible transport environment Camden, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Camden London Borough Council

Parking Business Administrator Level 3 Apprenticeship

Brent Council
£15,000 p.a. inc.
This role will support the Brent Parking Team work to provide administrative support for both the Notice Processing Team Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Brent Council

Principal Engineer (Development)

Liverpool City Council
£37,849 - £42,683
Liverpool City Council wish to recruit a Principal Engineer (Development) to provide managerial and technical support. Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Council

Traffic Manager

Lincolnshire County Council
£55,503 - £60,578
We are looking to recruit a Traffic Manager to join our Highways team Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recuriter: Lincolnshire County Council

Team Leader x2 - Passenger Transport

Redbridge London Borough Council
£27,228 - £28,215 per annum
You will be responsible for overseeing the duties of Passenger Transport drivers as well as providing support to the service and managers. Redbridge, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Redbridge London Borough Council

UTMC Engineer

Warrington Borough Council
£31,371 - £34,788
You will support the UTMC Principal Engineer and work as part of a team responsible for all aspects of Urban Traffic Management and Control Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Programme Assurance Manager Public Realm

Westminster City Council
£46,293 - £49,203 per annum
A graduate, or have equivalent experience, and you can show evidence of continued professional, managerial and personal development... City of Westminster, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Westminster City Council

Highways on Fridays

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Zero carbon roads?

Modelling the future

A breath of fresh air

View the latest issue

Latest Video