The challenges facing our highways infrastructure continue to grow. Chancellor, Phillip Hammond made an extra £1.3 billion available to improve Britain’s roads in his Autumn Statement in November 2016. Nevertheless, the ongoing repairs and maintenance budgets remain tight and subject to further cuts. So councils are likely to face a prolonged period of protecting already limited funds against other services. Moreover, with Brexit adding to the uncertainty, there is little sign of a pending upswing in funding.
Adding to the challenges the authorities face, they are also confronted by broad public disapproval about their priorities in applying the funding they have at their disposal.
There is a clear disconnect here. More people are impacted every day by problems on local roads than they are by issues with motorways or the larger ‘A’ roads. Yet, a recent survey we ran at Yotta finds that almost half of all road users (43%) believe that authorities prioritise maintenance of major highways over repairs to local infrastructure.
It’s a thorny issue for councils and highways agencies as there are legitimate reasons for prioritising the strategic network, which carries most traffic and generates most income for the UK. But whatever the rights and wrongs, given the breadth of public dissatisfaction on these issues, it is clear that the authorities are not currently getting their message across sufficiently well.
Finding an Answer
So what is the solution to these seemingly intractable problems? Making better use of data, historically often seen as a major challenge in itself, provides one potential way forward.
Today, more and more authorities are seeing the potential that data provides to transform their whole approach to highways thanks in no small part to the introduction of new technologies such as strategic asset management, an increasing willingness to embrace innovation and a growing use of predictive analytics.
These are positive developments. However, maximising their value could involve a step-change in thinking for these authorities. Instead of going it alone, it would make more sense for them to work collaboratively. They need to start tapping into the expertise and enhanced operational efficiencies that working closely with the supply chain, technology solutions providers and academic research departments can bring. This might be to share new concepts and technologies, or to develop formal working partnerships.
Better communication with road users is vital, of course, and that means engaging the public in decision-making, explaining complex issues to them via visualised asset management software and keeping them informed ahead of time of roadworks, repairs and other issues that may impact their daily journey to school, college or work. However, collaboration and engagement with the wider supply chain and third party technology providers could be just as important in achieving this critical end goal.
Unfortunately, the way that government funding is allocated frequently works against this. The 100% retention of business rates by local authorities means that many councils will be operating in their own devolved areas raising their own money and using it how they see fit.
At the same time, collaboration is still in its earliest stages across the sector. Providers working with consultants, clients with contractors, contractors working together – these relationships remain patchy and inconsistent. There is a need for broader engagement between councils and the wider supply chain - with asset management technology providers and indeed with academia in the form of university research departments.
Working Together through the Process
The collaborative approach needs to start at the project planning phase. Typically, there is a tendency to first select the team and then decide on the project objectives. But, doing it in the opposite order makes is more logical and encourages better collaboration. So starting with the end objective and then selecting the cross-organisational team best placed to achieve the required outcome could be a more sensible move.
Often, today’s asset management projects fail to tap into a broader ecosystem of expertise which draws on talent pools outside the main team. Much can be gained by making use of the expertise and understanding being developed in university research departments, or by working with other local authorities to share technology and ideas, or even by closely engaging with government to gain a better understanding of how to tap into new funding sources.
Why Technology is Key
Of course, this all needs a catalyst to make it happen – and this must involve increasing investment in training, finance and skills. But in turn these can be shared out across a selection of councils, all helping to build up best practice across the network.
Putting the right technology in place is however, equally if not even more important. Strategic asset management is fundamental to the way forward in delivering effective asset management services. It underpins the concept of collaborative working and has the potential to evolve into the building information modelling (BIM) of the highways sector.
According to Matthew Lugg, Director of Public Services at Mouchel Consulting: “Too often people don’t make the link between asset management and service delivery but this kind of software brings them together and underpins a collaborative working approach, with every interested party from local authorities to consultants, technology providers to the public, working together to achieve a common goal. To take things to the next level, councils need these kinds of systems.”
Bhawin Makana, Data Analyst, RAC Foundation, also highlights the importance of asset management software in delivering enhanced collaboration: “From our point of view, if authorities are making important decisions through a system that is clear and reliable using accurate data that is transferable across all authorities then that can only be a good thing. Asset management is playing an important role today and will continue to do so in the future.”
As we look to the future then, the highways repair and maintenance landscape continues to be characterised by a broad range of challenges - from tight revenue budgets to rapid data growth to the need to improve the avenues of engagement with the public. In addressing these multifaceted issues and overcoming the barriers, highways agencies and departments within local authorities need to start looking to adopt approaches that drive improved collaboration with key stakeholders in order to achieve operational efficiencies and help to accomplish important project goals.
These are complex and difficult challenges to overcome. That’s why we are seeing greater uptake today of strategic asset management software solutions that are able to address these issues and enable key stakeholders achieve their end goals and start to build a positive roadmap for the future.
Nick Smee, CEO, Yotta
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