Councils ‘disappointingly slow’ in developing shared services approach to roads, says Accounts Commission
The Accounts Commission says councils need to collaborate more on road maintenance to get better value for money
Road maintenance - Image credit: PA images
Urgent action is needed on Scotland roads, both at a local and national level, according to local government spending watchdog the Accounts Commission.
Councils maintain most of Scotland's roads and while the proportion of those roads classed as being in acceptable condition has stayed at around 63 per cent over the past four years, councils' spending on maintenance has fallen by 14 per cent during the same period.
Spending varied across local authorities, with thirteen of Scotland’s 32 councils increasing their spend on road repairs, but overall Scottish local authorities spent £33m less on roads in 2014/15 than the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation Scotland considered was necessary to maintain local roads.
Argyll and Bute was the worst performing council, with 56 per cent of its roads judged unacceptable, while Orkney was the best performing, with 79 per cent of its roads in good condition.
While the auditor recognised that there have been cuts to council budgets, with other key areas of spending such as education and social care being prioritised, it questioned the money saving solutions chosen.
The Accounts Commission says that although cheaper repair options have helped budgets stretch further, they carry risks and “may not deliver value for money in the longer term”.
It criticises councils for not pooling resources and collaborating to make savings.
The report concludes: “Councils are in the process of establishing regional governance bodies for local roads maintenance but there is still no clear plan and timetable for determining the extent of shared services at an operational level.
“Scottish ministers want to see councils make more progress, and be able to demonstrate the efficiency savings and other benefits arising, before trunk roads could be considered for inclusion in such regional arrangements.”
Accounts Commission chair Douglas Sinclair, said: "The state of our roads is a major concern for the public.
“Surveys show that they remain dissatisfied, despite these concerns being flagged up in our two previous reports. Their voice needs to be listened to.
"Councils face increasing pressures and challenges but progress in developing a shared services approach for roads has been disappointingly slow.
“They can and should collaborate much more to secure better value for money."
However, the proportion of the national trunk roads maintained by Transport Scotland that are in an acceptable condition also fell slightly from 90 per cent to 87 per cent over the four-year period and Transport Scotland spent £24m less on structural maintenance in 2014/15 than it considered necessary to maintain road condition at current levels.
Transport Scotland put the fall in road quality down to more resurfacing work instead of full reconstruction, which would improve the underlying layers.
The Scottish Greens called for more money to be invested in maintaining roads rather than building new ones, while the Conservative transport spokesperson Alex Johnstone criticised the SNP government for “neglecting the day job while it agitates for separation”.
COSLA, however, took issue with the method used for comparison in the report, arguing that simply comparing spend did not take into account the local circumstances in different areas and “gloss over a complex picture”.
The body’s development, economy and sustainability spokesperson, Councillor Stephen Hagan, said: “Scotland’s councils engage daily with their communities so they know just how important the state of the roads is to the public.
“The reality of the situation is that Scotland’s councils have done a good job with less resource in keeping the roads to a decent standard.
“It is clear that some councils, despite the financial challenges, have chosen to invest in road quality while others, for perfectly valid reasons, have chosen to spend scarce resource on other vital services.
“However, simply measuring pounds spent on roads maintenance is a poor proxy measure for quality – something which the report admits.
“They make clear that other factors, not least remoteness, historic investment patterns and winter weather all play a part in determining local road quality.
“Despite this the report has several tables and graphs which compare directly the financial investment made by councils.
“Local government is all for transparency but comparing councils in this way is not helpful and masks the good work that councils are doing, namely as the report acknowledges, that councils are delivering greater service efficiency and that councils are adapting their road maintenance to meet the financial reality.
“COSLA is a supporter of shared services where they can deliver improvements, but we are also clear they are not a ‘silver bullet’ in every case.
“It is perfectly possible for councils to deliver good services with or without collaboration with their neighbours and this becomes clear if you read the report in some detail.
“Work on roads collaboration is continuing but should not be viewed as a panacea for challenges faced by local authorities.”
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