Under its new 'Highways Improvement Plan' the council has set out ambitions to get on top of its growing backlog of road defects, which peaked at 5,269 in March, by driving up the performance of its road maintenance contractor Kier and moving away from shoddy short-term repairs in favour of permanent improvements.
Mark Barrow, director of place, told a meeting of the council’s performance management scrutiny committee that the need for a drastic overhaul in highways maintenance had long been identified.
Road repairs were stepped up last year and by November 2019 the number of defects in need of repair had been reduced from 3,500 to around 700.
Mr Barrow said: “However, performance worsened again over the winter period and when we got into spring we decided we needed a full and inclusive programme of improvements because what we were encountering were not one-off issues, they were more systematic problems.”
In January the council hired a £1,000-a-day pothole consultant to improve the service, who drew up a list of 53 key actions as part of the new Highways Improvement Plan.
The council’s review found that in some cases it was paying more than four times the national average for highways repair work, while the backlog continued to grow as Kier left some defects to deteriorate further for months on end.
Mr Barrow said this was now being addressed with better management of the Kier contract and a move towards better repairs. He said permanent repairs now accounted for 95 per cent of work, up from just five per cent before the improvement plan was implemented.
Mr Barrow added that a restructure in the highways department meant their were now highly experienced and qualified people in post to ensure positive progress within the service was maintained.
Councillor Cecilia Motley, who represents Corvedale, said rural roads in south Shropshire had been waiting for improvements for far too long.
She said: “I am delighted to see that that improvements are being made at pace at the moment, but what really worries me is the fact that the state of the highway was allowed to deteriorate, in particular the country lanes which have to bear a lot of heavy traffic from agricultural vehicles.
“What I don’t understand is when it became evident that Kier was failing to deliver, and failing to deliver big style, why on Earth an improvement plan did not start kicking in much sooner than it did.”
Councillor Motley said long-term water damage had been caused to the roads when planned clearance work on drains and culverts was “completely abandoned and ignored over years”.
She added: “What really annoys me about that is the fact that as a result of that we are probably spend an awful lot more money in order to rectify situations which would not have arisen had that perfectly basic maintenance work been done in the first place.
“I really want to know why no action was taken to try and get better performance out of Kier right from the start when it was obvious that they were failing.”
Mr Barrow said the contract with Kier had started in April 2018 after problems with the previous company and that “there was hope that with the arrival of a new contractor all the difficulties and problems from the previous contractor would be solved, and that didn’t come to pass”.
He said mechanisms were not in place to manage the programme of improvements effectively, and “systematic failures” began to become apparent by late 2018, but it was now hoped that recent changes would lead to permanent improvements to the service.
The council also apologised for disruptive roadworks undertaken with little or no notice to allow people to plan alternative routes, after concerns were raised by Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Roger Evans.
Committee chair Councillor Claire Wild read a response prepared by highways officers, which explained that responsibility for public engagement around road closures had recently been passed from the council to Kier.
The statement said: “The firmer line drawn by ourselves holding the contractor to account has contributed to some of the issues around notification as our contractor adjusts to its new responsibility.
“We recognise these shortcomings and apologise for any inconvenience caused.”