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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

How a new approach to asset management can help highways departments win the fundings battle

Highways departments within councils often have to battle for funding both in general but also against projects run by other departments in the same council. It can be an uphill struggle. In 2021, the Local Government Association warned local road maintenance was facing a £400 million cut.

Early in 2022, the County Councils Network analysis of indicative roads maintenance funding painted a starker picture, revealing that county and rural councils outside of England’s major cities and urban areas could receive £727 million over the next financial year, representing a reduction of £480 million compared to what they received two years previously.

Against this backdrop, local authorities are looking to enhance their approach to strategic highways asset management to improve their share of the funding pie. So how can they best achieve this?

Departments have traditionally focused on measuring the long-term financial impact of different road treatment options, and that has helped save money and justify budgets. Highways asset managers have always needed to choose the right treatment, at the right place, at the right time to maintain the service level of the highways network while minimising spending over time.

The decision, however, was often nuanced. They had to assess whether it was better to save money at the beginning of the process by using a less expensive surface treatment, only to have to spend more later conducting carriageway repairs or implementing additional surface dressings. They also had to gauge whether leveraging more durable but expensive materials from the beginning would end up being an economically-sounder decision.

To get it right, they have had to capture the unique knowledge and experience of highways engineers, together with any historical data to deliver a set of action plans required to meet their strategic priorities.

Adding in a new dimension

This financially-focused approach to highways asset management and funding applications remains critically important today. However, we are increasingly seeing an extra dimension added into the mix.

Over the last few years, we have started witnessing the socio-economic impacts of new road builds or developments on the local community being brought onto the agenda. By so doing, departments can both stand out from the crowd within their own council and also improve their opportunities for government funding.

The latest lifecycle planning models and techniques allow local authorities to plan the whole lifecycle of their highways assets much more quickly and to expand their parameters to include variables like carbon emissions and climate change impacts.

That’s increasingly the case now. And it is highly-relevant given that questions relating to sustainability have recently been included for the first time in the Local Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund following the trialling of non-scoring questions concerning sustainability in the 2021 survey.

This will help ensure local authorities are now considering the question of carbon emissions in their highway maintenance activities – and a big part of that will be including it in their lifecycle plans moving forwards. And with authorities themselves using environmental factors to allocate funds between departments, the importance of doing this will only grow over time.

The impact of technological advances

Technology will increasingly be key in delivering this kind of capability. We are already seeing, new predictive analytics technology emerging, allowing local authorities to base highways management and maintenance decisions on their impact on the wellbeing of residents and the local economy and environment, as well as financial cost and road condition. Thanks to these advances, the authorities can move beyond a pure focus on road conditions to concentrating more on where roads are located, who is using them and what the environmental impact of their construction and maintenance will be.

Part of this may be around the ability to analyse where pinch points on the network are causing cars to idle. Part of it may be around better understanding how infrastructure decisions impact the quality of life in specific neighbourhoods: including support for economic growth, environmental impact, and changes in access to public resources like hospitals and schools.

However, a key element will inevitably be around the treatment used on road surfaces. Many local authorities are working with larger contractors. The local authority effectively manages the highway while contractors implement road and footway maintenance with increasing understanding f the environmental impacts of different treatment choices.

These might include assigning a carbon or NOx output to a treatment that can then be factored into the overall lifecycle model. It is another example that demonstrates how highways lifecycle planning is becoming ever-greener today.

Many councils are still new to implementing this kind of approach and currently, are still trying to understand their baseline. They need the ability to model these kinds of factors quickly to support the decision-making process for new rods schemes and the maintenance of existing networks. Equally, with government funding likely to be ever more closely linked to sustainability, adopting such an approach puts them in a good position to claim a larger slice of the future pie.

Author: Julian Collins, Head of Strategic Consultancy, at Yotta now part of Causeway Technology

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