Fixing roads has been made a priority in Staffordshire County Council’s latest strategic plan – but the authority has lost out on more than £8m Government funding to help tackle potholes and other repair work.
A Government grant for road maintenance was ‘reduced significantly’ two years ago, prompting Staffordshire County Council to earmark £15.5m in the coming financial year towards helping reduce a backlog of work and address the impact of the funding cut.
A full council meeting will consider the budget for 2022/23 and the authority’s Strategic Plan, which sets out the council’s aims in the years up to 2026, this week.
More than £32m is expected to be spent on road maintenance during 2022/23, as part of a £62.2m highways programme, reports the Express and Star.
Council leader Alan White, speaking at a recent scrutiny committee meeting, said: “Fixing more roads is something I’m really keen on. I’m sick and tired of potholes – aren’t we all? It’s what dominates our inbox. We want to start the journey of further investment and restructure of the highways department so that we get better at fixing our roads. It is the source of great frustration to many of our residents.
“I have a resident who lives in East Staffs who probably writes to me four or five times a day with her potholes. A measure of success would be that person particularly no longer writing to me. It’s getting those improvements in place, restructuring our teams so they deliver better and starting the journey. We can’t do everything in a single sitting, but what we do need to do is to be able to demonstrate definite progress over the period of this plan period. And if we are not making progress hold us to account.”
Councillor Bernard Peters said: “Here we have a four-year plan. But Joe Public – my constituents – do not see a sense of pace in terms of addressing highways issues.
“They hear me talk at parish council meetings, here we go again, put it in, we’ll prioritise it and come out and have a look at it. And then there is an inordinate amount of time waiting for that piece of work to be completed.
“It becomes a real frustration having to defend it when on paper, to the public, it looks like a straightforward piece of work to a professional organisation. I think there’s something around improving our communication strategy and standing by what we’re saying. Spreading it out over a four-year period isn’t helpful to the public trying to understand what we’re on with.”
Councillor Charlotte Atkins, leader of the opposition group, said: “We had a very optimistic presentation to the Medium Term Financial Strategy Working Group about how a three-year investment strategy of £105m was going to solve all our customer-facing problems. We were going to have roads without potholes and grids cleared out.
“But now of course, because of the one-year settlement, that programme has been massively cut back. What parts of that presentation will now be scrapped?”
Councillor White responded: “My ambition was to improve as fast as we possibly could and I felt that would require a certain amount of investment in the highways.
“There is a pledge to reduce costs and live within our means. Whilst I would have dearly loved to be able to put more money into the highways, Central Government has given us a one-year settlement and the net result is we can only put in an additional £15.5m, plus some additional revenue money, into highways, which is less than I would have liked.
“But it starts us on a journey to improvement and gives us the opportunity to think about those areas of reform and restructure within the highways department that are required. It doesn’t get us all the way but it gets us going and I hope members will be able to bear with me – and bear with Government whilst they consider how local government is going to be funded.
“Undoubtedly (Councillor David Williams, cabinet member for highways and transport) will have given you a long exposition of how upset he was that Central Government withdrew around £8.7m of highways funding from us. Councillor Williams isn’t the only one that’s upset; I think there’s probably around 880,000 people across Staffordshire who are rather upset about the withdrawal of £8.7m of highways funding.
“But we are where we are, we’ve got the settlement, we’re able to put an additional £15.5m into highways and I hope you will start to see at least some improvement in the highways network.
“People want to see their roads fixed now and they want to be communicated with when they make a report. We’re all the Amazon generation – if you see it and want it, you buy it, you get told by Amazon when it’s due to arrive.
“And yet, with many council services, you report it, you don’t hear back for ages and don’t know what’s going on. What we need to do is make sure our communications reflect the expectations of the people we represent.
“Some of the issues around why things take as long as they do is because potholes that you would expect to be repaired as right first time aren’t right first time. They have to get redone in a period of time which is unacceptable.
“If we get these things done right first time then they don’t need to go back. Somebody who is going back to fix a pothole can’t fix the next pothole, which adds to the frustration people might have.”