Mind the Gap

Road MaintenanceThe progress report of the pothole review being undertaken by the DfT's Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) has identified the growing problem of potholes.

These are gaps that must be filled if the condition of our road network is to be improved, explains Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association.

The DfT’s HMEP review follows the devastating impact of three successive severe winters which resulted in over 2.7 million potholes and added to the estimated £11 billion repair bill. The review proposes a full examination of why potholes occur, how best to avoid them appearing and how best to fix them. The progress report was published in December. It collates the findings of the initial phase of work that includes a study of existing guidance and consultation with key stakeholders including industry, user groups and local highway authorities. The review’s final report is due to be published in March.

On a policy level, the progress report has found there is undue focus on principal roads to the detriment of non-principal roads. Previously, the National Indicators (NI) 168 and 169 were used to report on the condition of all classified roads. The indicators were used by central government to monitor the performance of local authorities via Comprehensive Area Assessment. However, the national indicators and assessment were abolished in October 2010. Local authorities continue to assess the condition of their road network via a traffic speed survey using vehicles fitted with ‘scanner’ equipment. The data is collected on the same basis as the former NI 168 and 169 under an arrangement called the Single Data List which is then released for the DfT. Despite this, there is no national quantitative survey undertaken that specifically measures the number of potholes on the local road network. Indeed, the report finds that there is no national standard definition of a pothole let alone a national mechanism for their numeric calculation. 

Lack of national policy

This lack of a standardised, national policy is underlined by the many different approaches taken by local authorities when it comes to identifying, recording and repairing potholes. For although the ADEPT report ‘Pothole Repair Techniques for Local Highways’ offers a process for right first time pothole repairs it does not include a specification or cover the use of alternative materials and techniques. 

There is also a need for local authorities to adopt a preventative approach to maintenance over the whole life of a road and so minimise the potential for potholes. This is understood by some forward thinking councils but unfortunately not by all.

On a practical level, the progress report has found that the vast majority of the local road network consists of roads which have evolved rather than been designed and constructed to specific standards. This compromises the network’s resilience to severe weather damage. In addition, it found that there is no nationally recognised best practice guide for road maintenance and repair. 

These findings have focused on a number of gaps that need to be addressed such as the need for local authority guidance on how to improve the resilience of the road network, the lack of a national definition of a pothole and coherent database and the need for a common approach to pothole inspection and repair. The provision of recognised codes of practice that all local authorities and their contractors sign-up to would do much to fill this void.  They should identify the range of pothole solutions that are available, provide information on their minimum service life and address the issue as to why some local authorities choose the lowest cost, quick fix rather specify the best long-term solution and why they are reluctant to consider innovative road surface treatments despite their being tested and proven. The Review should also address the fact that the continuity of best practice can be affected when local authority Managing Agent Contracts (MACs) change hands. Driven by short-term commercial imperatives rather than long-term technical performance, different contractors can take a different view when choosing maintenance solutions.

Workforce skills

A further gap that needs to be addressed, and one that the Review has yet to demonstrate a real appreciation, is that of workforce skills. The operatives engaged in pothole repair are often low skilled and working relatively autonomously with little control. This means that work practices can often be very different from the application guidance and the resultant repair can be poor. It is important that contractor operatives should be fully trained and qualified to ensure that they apply the correct work practices. Operatives must have minimum NVQs and CSCS skill cards proving competence and knowledge.

As the industry focus for the road surface treatments sector, the RSTA is working closely with the DfT/HMEP project team and all other stakeholders in developing and forwarding the necessary code of practice. The association is also working with organisations such as ADEPT and CSkills to ensure easy availability of best practice guidance and training and so help plug the gaps that have been identified by the HMEP review

With ADEPT, RSTA has developed a number of ADEPT endorsed codes of practice for a wide range of road surface treatments. The codes have been developed to ensure greater consistency of delivery, improved guarantee of first time success and zero remedial costs.

These codes provide a significant contribution to the industry portfolio of guidance and technical knowledge. Meanwhile, an important objective of the RSTA is the continued improvement in the competence of the road surfacing industry’s workforce. To facilitate this, RSTA provides full support and advice on all aspects of training and has developed a comprehensive training programme that is being further developed in conjunction with CSkills. RTSA courses meet the requirements of Sector Scheme 13, BBA HAPAS and the RSTA/ADEPT Codes of Practices as proof of continued professional development upon successful achievement of the RSTA Silver Certificate, the only certificate of competence and a mandatory requirement for NHSS13 for surface dressing, slurry/micro-surfacing and velocity patching, retexturing and geosythetics and steel meshes. 

Spreading best practice

The work of the RSTA is recognised by HMEP and will be examined as part of the next phase of the Review which will consider how existing best practice guidance can be consolidated and promoted for widespread use by local highway authorities. Other issues to be considered in the next phase include how best to forward collaboration between councils so that the knowledge and experience of those local authorities demonstrating innovative and successful techniques in preventing as well as managing and repairing potholes is available to all.

The DfT/HMEP review has identified many gaps in the prevention, management and repair of potholes. It is hoped that the involvement of central and local government, industry and other key stakeholders will develop of code of practice that will do much to address the need for consistency and the delivery of best practice. Minding and filling the gaps concerning pothole repair will offer local highway authorities with considerable cost savings and performance benefits.

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