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PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
(II) MANAGEMENT OF ON-STREET PARKING
TOGETHER WITH THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEERELATING TO THE REPORT AND THE MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Ordered by the Public Accounts Committee to be printed 19 June 2001 Report: 6/00/R (Public Accounts Committee)
SIXTH REPORT FROM PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Standing Orders under Section 60(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 have provided for the establishment of the Public Accounts Committee. It is the statutory function of the Public Accounts Committee to consider the accounts and reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General laid before the Assembly.
The Public Accounts Committee is appointed under Standing Order No. 55. It has the power to send for persons, papers and records and to report from time to time. Neither the Chairperson nor Deputy Chairperson of the Committee shall be a member of the same political party as the Minister of Finance and Personnel or of any junior minister appointed to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
The Committee Members were appointed by the Assembly on Monday 24 January 2000. They will continue to be Members of the Committee for the remainder of the Assembly, unless it orders otherwise. The Chairperson Billy Bell and Vice-Chairperson Sue Ramsey were previously appointed on 15 December 1999. The full membership of the Committee is as follows:-
All publications of the Committee (including press notices) are on the internet at archive.niassembly.gov.uk/ accounts.htm
All correspondence should be addressed to The Clerk of the Public Accounts Committee, Room 242, Parliament Buildings, Stormont, BELFAST, BT4 3XX. The telephone number for general inquiries is: 028-9052-1532. The Committee's e-mail address is: email@example.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Mr Ronnie Spence, Accounting Officer, Department for Regional Development
Mr Grahame Fraser, Acting Chief Executive, Roads Service
Mr David Orr, Acting Director of Network and Customer Services, Roads Service
Mr John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG)
Dr Andrew McCormick, Treasury Officer of Accounts, Department of Finance and Personnel.
The Public Accounts Committee has
(I) Structural Maintenance of Roads and
The Public Accounts Committee met on 21 March 2001 to consider the Comptroller
and Auditor General's reports on "Structural Maintenance of Roads"
(NIA 15, Session 1999-2000) and "Management of On-Street Parking"
(NIA 24/00, Session 2000/2001). Our witnesses were:
1. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) through its Executive Agency - Roads Service, has a statutory duty to maintain all public roads in reasonable condition, having regard to the character of the road and the traffic expected to use it. A continuous programme of planned maintenance is required to preserve the surfaces and structure of the road network and to prevent deterioration. The C&AG's report focussed on the condition of the network, which extends to some 24,500 kilometres (15,225 miles); the adequacy of the funding provided to maintain it; whether Roads Services current maintenance practices provide value for money; and its performance in meeting its key targets.
2. In taking evidence, the Committee focussed on a number of issues raised by the C&AG's report. These were:
3.1 Roads Service told us that the amount spent on maintenance work in 1998-99 was about half the amount required to maintain the road network in reasonable condition. A backlog is building up which is currently estimated to be in the region of £110-£120 million. This is an alarming situation and we are concerned to note that it was not until 1998 that a properly structured maintenance funding plan was produced. We cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of ensuring that accurate, complete and reliable estimates are produced to support bids for funding.
3.2 We accept that funding priorities are subject to political judgement but it is essential that decisions are based on full information about spending choices.
3.3 We had the impression that, in the absence of the full amount of funding required, Roads Service called into question the value of strategic planning. In our view, detailed planning and assessment of priorities is, if anything, more important when scarce resources are forcing decisions to adopt second or third best solutions. What is needed is a clear plan to demonstrate that value for money will be achieved with the limited resources available.
3.4 We welcome the recent progress made to introduce the UK Pavement Management System and urge the Department to ensure that it is fully utilised at the earliest opportunity.
3.5 "Best value" is a recent government initiative which involves setting targets for continuous improvement and delivering services by the most economic, efficient and effective means available. The Department told us that it was progressing this initiative but we understand that it will take about five years to complete the process. We recommend that targets should be set to ensure that there is no slippage in this programme. Roads Service is also involved in benchmarking against other organisations. We urge the Department to ensure that the necessary detailed management information systems are in place to enable meaningful comparisons to be made.
3.6 We welcome the fact that management consultants have been engaged to help produce more challenging targets for Roads Service.
3.7 The inspection of roads is extremely labour intensive and currently every road is inspected at least once every eight weeks. The cost of doing this is around £6.7 million a year representing some 16 per cent of maintenance expenditure. However, the Department reviewed inspection levels of lower traffic volume roads and, as a result, had reduced the number of Inspector posts, saving around £200,000 per annum. In our view, this demonstrates clearly the need for continuous review of services to ensure that resources are being effectively utilised.
3.8 We are concerned that the level of patching now accounts for approximately 30 per cent of the total maintenance budget when Roads Service would like to see it around 10 per cent. The Department told us that, in the long term, patching was not a sensible thing to do. We acknowledge the difficulties, but consider that there is scope for reducing the cost of patching through development of a best value approach, better co-ordination in carrying out repair work and expanding the benefits of innovative approaches to all Divisions.
3.9 The Department told us that the cost of public liability claims has been reduced to under £3 million in 1999-2000. This has been achieved as a result of Roads Service being more successful in responding to road repairs and also through ensuring that all claims are rigorously contested. We are encouraged by this action and would urge the Department to continue to make progress in minimising these costs.
3.10 Over the last five years, ten per cent or more of the structural maintenance budget has been allocated late in the financial year, usually around December, which results in maintenance work being undertaken during the winter period. This can cause difficulties in the planning and execution of work and indeed could result in an unacceptable waste of scarce resources. We welcome the developments outlined by the Treasury Officer of Accounts which are under consideration to improve the budget process and we expect these to lead to real improvements in the funding arrangements for Roads Service.
3.11 We recommend that the Department should make every effort to improve the skidding resistance standard on the trunk road network to levels which local authorities in GB regard as acceptable and that it should set itself targets to achieve this.
3.12 We recommend that the Department should ensure that the principles of economic appraisal are applied throughout Roads Service where decisions are being taken on maintenance expenditure to ensure that best value is obtained from the limited resources.
3.13 In view of the restricted funding available to Roads Service every effort must be made to identify ways of reducing the maintenance burden. We are concerned, for example, about the disproportionately damaging effect that heavy goods vehicles have on our road network, particularly the smaller rural roads. In our view, the Department must be pro-active in using its powers to limit this damage to the network.
3.14 We were interested to learn that the Department has been considering whether developers undertaking significant building programmes should pay more of the cost of providing the infrastructure, sewerage and roads. We consider this to be a very sensible approach to raising funding for roadworks.
3.15 We are very concerned about the damage caused by utilities who dig up the roads to lay pipes and cables. In our view, there is a parallel with the policy of the "polluter pays" in cases of environmental damage. The same principle should apply to road damage caused by utilities and the Department should seek to recover costs from them. We will be dealing with this issue in more detail when we come to take evidence on the C&AG's separate report on the subject.
4. Throughout the Hearing the Department reminded us that the Roads Service Maintenance Programme had been underfunded for some time. The point was made that, in the absence of a proper level of funding, its maintenance programme is far from ideal and it is being pushed into short-term compromises that do not make long-term sense. We sympathise with these circumstances but feel strongly that there are measures which the Department should have been taking to ensure that best value is achieved from the resources available.
5. Roads Service estimates that the annual amount required to maintain the road network in reasonable condition is in the region of £86 million, based on the longest possible life of surface materials. The amount spent on maintenance in 1998-99 was about half that amount at £42.7 million. A backlog of maintenance work is, therefore, building up which is currently estimated to be in the region of £110-£120 million. This is an alarming situation and we are concerned to note that it was not until 1998 that a properly structured maintenance funding plan was produced. We are also concerned to learn that the current method of visually surveying the vast majority of roads in Northern Ireland does not give the whole picture because it only looks at surface condition and therefore tends to undervalue the maintenance requirements. We cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of ensuring that accurate, complete and reliable estimates are produced to support bids for funding.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 3.8-3.14 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 2-6 and 15-18.
6. We note that there has been a steady decline in expenditure on structural maintenance to the extent that it is at its lowest level (in real terms) for over 15 years. The expenditure is consistently lower than in England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic of Ireland. We were concerned to hear that maintenance frequencies are much longer than recommended good practice and, if that were to continue, some roads would be resurfaced only once in over a century. The Department acknowledged that many minor roads could fall into a serious state of disrepair. We therefore questioned the Department on whether it was continuing to give sufficient priority to maintenance and was making the full extent of the problem known.
7. The Department said that maintenance was still Road Service's top priority but it had to achieve a balance with other maintenance services such as street lighting and the construction of new roads. We accept that such matters are subject to political judgement but it is essential that decisions are based on full information about spending choices. The Department assured us that it had not disguised the scale of the problem but it did accept that some valid points had been made in the audit report about making more of the information available and it would look at how best to do that.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 7, 1.2, 2.7, 3.5 and 4.2 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 23-57.
8. We questioned the Department on whether it produced a long-term strategic plan to prioritise the maintenance programme and optimise resources. We were told that £86 million a year would be needed to do that and, where resources are limited, it is a reactive process where the worst cases are tackled first. Roads Service said it had to accept that the programme is far from ideal. We had the impression that, in the absence of the full amount of funding required, Roads Service called into question the value of strategic planning. In our view, detailed planning and assessment of priorities is, if anything, more important when scarce resources are forcing decisions to adopt second or third best solutions. What is needed is a clear plan to demonstrate that value for money will be achieved with the limited resources available.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 3.6-3.10 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 132-144.
9. The UK Pavement Management System (UKPMS) is designed to assist Highway Authorities to plan Structural Maintenance more effectively, thus optimising the allocation of funds. The C&AG reported in 1992 that Roads Service had planned to introduce UKPMS within 3-5 years but we understand that difficulties were encountered and the implementation programme had continued to slip. The Department told us that the timescale was outside its direct control since the project was essentially a national scheme which was to be developed by the private sector and then sold to road authorities. However, the system is now available and it has been piloted in one of its section offices in Autumn 2000. Roads Service considers it is now well placed to adopt it in full by 2002-03. We welcome this recent progress and urge the Department to ensure that the system is fully utilised at the earliest opportunity.
C&AG's report, paragraph 2.5 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs, 142-144.
10. "Best Value" is a recent government initiative which involves setting targets for continuous improvement and delivering services by the most economic, efficient and effective means available. The Department told us that it was quite active in progressing best value and a comprehensive range of other measures to improve the way services are delivered. We understand that it will take about five years to complete the best value process and we recommend that targets should be set to ensure that there is no slippage in this programme. Roads Service is also involved in benchmarking against other organisations. It is a member of a best practice club which is a networking organisation with over 500 members from both the private and public sectors. We welcome these steps and urge the Department to ensure that the necessary detailed management information systems are in place to enable meaningful comparisons to be made with other bodies. Progress on these matters should be reported in Roads Service's annual report and accounts.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 5.11-5.13 and 5.15 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 100-115.
11. We note from the C&AG's report that, although Roads Service has been successful in meeting its key targets, the targets have not changed since 1996. The Department told us that it had engaged management consultants during the past year to help produce more challenging targets. We welcome this action and while we accept that targets must bear some relationship to the resources available, we agree with the Department that they must also stretch and challenge the organisation.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 5.2 and 5.3 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 188-190.
12. The Public Service Agreement under the Programme for Government indicates that 35 per cent of Roads Service's budget for 2001-02 is for salaries, wages, expenses and administrative support. We questioned the Department on whether there had been any staffing reviews to ensure that this high level of cost could be justified. The Department assured us that there is absolutely no complacency about the efficiency of Roads Service. We were pleased to learn that it is subjected to continuous reviews to see whether each business area is performing in the most efficient way.
Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 82-86.
13. The inspection of roads is extremely labour intensive and currently every road is inspected at least once every eight weeks. The cost of doing this is around £6.7 million a year representing some 16 per cent of maintenance expenditure. We questioned the Department about the measures it was taking to reduce the cost of inspection and whether it had achieved any reduction in cost since the C&AG's report. The Department told us it had been reviewing inspection levels and revising road maintenance standards which has resulted in less frequent inspection of lower traffic volume roads. As a result some 16 of the 126 existing Inspector posts have been saved reducing costs by around £200,000 per annum. However, it added that most of the staff reductions were now being used to supplement the inspection of utility reinstatement work on road openings, which has been causing much difficulty. In our view this demonstrates clearly the need for continuous review of services to ensure that resources are being effectively utilised and deployed in those areas where they are needed.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 2.2-2.4 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 89-94.
14. We are concerned that the level of patching, which is a good indicator of deterioration, now accounts for approximately 30 per cent of the total maintenance budget when Roads Service would like to see it around 10 per cent. The Department told us that, in the long term, patching was not a sensible thing to do. Because insufficient resources are available to properly maintain the road it was forced to adopt short-term measures such as patching and surface dressing to meet its statutory duty and to avoid excessive public liability claims. We acknowledge the difficulties, but consider that there is scope for reducing the cost of patching through development of a best value approach, better co-ordination in carrying out repair work and expanding the benefits of innovative approaches such as the "jet patcher" to all Divisions.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 2.16, 2.17, 2.21 and 4.5 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 95-99 and 177-184.
15. The Department told us that the cost of public liability claims has been reduced to under £3 million in 1999-2000 and it expects that the figure will be nearer £2 million in 2000-2001. This has been achieved as a result of Roads Service being more successful in responding to the immediate weaknesses or faults in the roads through patching or emergency repairs and also through ensuring that all claims are rigorously contested. We are encouraged by this action and would urge the Department to continue to make progress in minimising these costs.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 2.13-2.15 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 116-117 and 185-187.
16. Over the last five years, ten per cent or more of the structural maintenance budget has been allocated late in the financial year, usually around December, which results in maintenance work being undertaken during the winter period. This can cause difficulties in the planning and execution of work and indeed could result in an unacceptable waste of scarce resources. The Treasury Officer of Accounts told us that allocations across Departments and Agencies are made in good faith but that some of the judgements formed at the outset prove to be over-estimates. The pattern is that savings in other Departments, which may result in a late allocation to Roads Service, do not emerge until late in the year. The Department of Finance and Personnel had expressed concerns about this to other Departments. In order to improve matters it is recognised that better strategic planning of spending allocations need to be developed and the Executive was seeking to achieve this through developing the budget process. The process would also be assisted by the development of public service agreements as regards spending, outputs and objectives. In addition, resource accounting and budgeting, which came into effect in April 2001, will help provide better information on costs in relation to the deterioration of assets and hence the choices will be clearer. We welcome the developments that are now under consideration and will expect to see this leading to real improvements in the funding arrangements for Roads Service.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 4.9 and 4.10 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 58-64 and 118-131.
17. We are concerned to note that some 17 per cent of the Trunk Road Network (TRN) is below the "investigatory level" indicating that these sections of road may need to be treated to improve their skidding resistance. The Department accepts that this is undesirable and would like to reduce it to around 5 per cent if it had the resources. This is the level which some local authorities in Great Britain accept should be the standard on a well-maintained network. The Department explained that, although a road is below the investigatory level, it does not necessarily mean that the skidding resistance is defective. Nevertheless, it does take action and erects signs to warn of slippery roads if they cannot be treated. We recommend that the Department should make every effort to improve the skidding resistance standard on the TRN to levels which local authorities in GB regard as acceptable and that it should set itself targets to achieve this. We would also urge that consideration be given to extending the survey to high traffic volume roads outside the TRN.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 4.7, 4.8 and 4.12 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 65-73.
18. We note with considerable interest, the case studies in the C&AG's report which illustrate that better economic alternatives could have been pursued if a higher level of funding had been available. These case studies, in our opinion, illustrate the value of economic appraisal in determining the best options and the most deserving cases for maintenance work. We recommend that the Department should ensure that the principles of economic appraisal are applied throughout Roads Service where decisions are being taken on maintenance expenditure to ensure that best value is obtained from the limited resources.
C&AG's report, paragraph 4.11 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 74-78.
19. In view of the restricted funding available to Roads Service every effort must be made to identify ways of reducing the maintenance burden. We are concerned, for example, about the disproportionately damaging effect that heavy goods vehicles have on our road network, particularly the smaller rural roads. The Department said it was aware of the increases in vehicle size, for example, milk collection vehicles. It does have powers to impose weight limits on such vehicles and attempts are made to restrict them from using narrow rural roads. In our view, the Department must be pro-active in using its powers to limit this damage to the network. It should also work closely with DOE's Transport Licensing and Enforcement Branch, and other enforcement bodies, to ensure that action is taken against those who overload vehicles.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 1.10 and 1.11 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 162-165.
20. We were interested to learn that the Department has been considering whether developers undertaking significant building programmes should pay more of the cost of providing the infrastructure, sewerage and roads and might, in some cases, contribute to public transport costs. We were told of two examples where developers had been required to pay for improvements to the roadworks to help cope with the increased traffic generated by the developments. We consider this to be a very sensible approach to raising funding for roadworks and would encourage the Department to extend this arrangement to all major developments.
Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 166-167 and 170-174.
21. We are very concerned about the damage caused by utilities who dig up the roads to lay pipes and cables. When a road is opened it is weakened, no matter how well it is reinstated, and the Department is left to pick up the repair costs for many years to come. The Department accepted that there are major concerns about the impact of utilities' work and the Minister has invited them to talk to him about their performance. In our view there is a parallel with the policy of the "polluter pays" in cases of environmental damage. The same principle should apply to road damage caused by utilities and the Department should seek to recover costs from them. We will be dealing with this issue in more detail when we come to take evidence on the C&AG's separate report on the subject.
C&AG's report, paragraphs 11 and 1.9 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 166-167, 171 and 210.
1. On-street parking in Belfast is provided by Roads Service, an executive agency of the Department for Regional Development, under the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981. Violations of the scheme are offences under the Road Traffic Regulation (NI) Order 1997. The scheme is enforced on Roads Service's behalf by traffic wardens employed by the RUC, and Roads Service reimburses the RUC for wardens' expenses. During 1999-2000, Roads Service spent £0.35 million on running costs and received £1.23 million from the sale of parking tickets, while the Northern Ireland Court Service collected an estimated £0.39 million from fixed penalty notices for parking fines. The C&AG's report examined the performance of Roads Service in administering the scheme and the performance of traffic wardens in enforcing it.
2. In taking evidence, the Committee focussed on a number of issues raised by the C&AG's report. These were:
3.1 The Department told us that it is now undertaking discussions with the RUC aimed at putting in place a service level agreement to improve the quality of service and standard of enforcement provided by traffic wardens. We welcome this positive development, but consider that such a structure should have been put in place a long time ago, particularly in view of Roads Service's dissatisfaction with the level of service provided. We recommend that the service level agreement should be completed without any further delay.
3.2 We recommend that the terms of any new maintenance contract for ticket machines should include penalty clauses for poor contractor performance. In our view, building in penalties of this sort, coupled with proper monitoring of performance, is the best way of preventing loss of income through ticket machines being out-of-order.
3.3 We note the Department's intention to replace over 40 of its machines in the coming year with newer models that have enhanced capabilities, such as reading electronic smart cards. We urge the Department to replace the remainder of its machines as quickly as possible, in order to provide a better service to motorists and minimise both maintenance costs and income loss as a result of faulty machines.
3.4 It is unacceptable, in terms of public accountability, for the Department to pay for traffic wardens' services without knowing what it is paying for, or for the RUC to issue invoices without knowing what it is charging for. We therefore urge the Department and the RUC to put in place a proper framework for ensuring that an accurate amount is invoiced and paid for the service provided.
3.5 In our view, the Department should have taken more robust action to ensure that a properly-managed enforcement regime was in place. It is essential that the proposed service level agreement should incorporate clearly defined enforcement standards and that these should be delivered by the wardens.
3.6 We urge DOE to keep the level of fines under regular review to ensure that they are set at a sufficiently high level to deter drivers from parking illegally.
3.7 We recommend that Roads Service should complete its proposed feasibility study on decriminalised parking without delay.
4. We commend the Department for Regional Development for having drawn the weaknesses in the on-street parking scheme to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General thus prompting our examination of the subject. The recommendations made in this report are aimed at putting in place an efficient system which will be fair for the motoring public. In our view, the Department must establish a proper management regime before extending on-street parking, either within Belfast, or to other towns in Northern Ireland.
5. We asked Roads Service what specific action it had taken on foot of a 1998 consultants' report that had indicated high levels of illegal parking in Belfast, some as high as 94 per cent. We also asked what it had done to draw the lack of prosecutions and lack of enforcement to the attention of the RUC, particularly in light of the estimate in the C&AG's report that Roads Service could be losing up to £300,000 a year through unpaid parking charges. The Department told us that is now undertaking discussions with the RUC aimed at putting in place a service level agreement to improve the quality of the service and standard of enforcement provided by traffic wardens. We welcome this positive development, but consider that such a structure should have been put in place a long time ago, particularly in view of Roads Service's dissatisfaction with the level of service provided. We recommend that the service level agreement should be completed without any further delay.
C&AG's report paragraphs 6 and 45 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 221-231 and 260-264.
6. In view of the high number of reported ticket machine faults and weaknesses in Roads Service's system for monitoring contractor performance, we asked the Department why it did not put a proper monitoring system in place when the current contract was being drawn up. The Department accepted that criticism of its record-keeping of machines' performance was valid, but that a new system was now in place to facilitate monitoring of individual machines. We welcome this new system which, in our view, should have been in place from the outset. We recommend that the terms of any new maintenance contract drawn up when the current contract expires should include penalty clauses for poor contractor performance. In our view, building in penalties of this sort, coupled with proper monitoring of performance, is the best way of preventing loss of income through ticket machines being out-of-order.
C&AG's report paragraphs 30 to 33 and 35, and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 232-236.
7. In view of the maintenance difficulties encountered with machines, including vandalism, we asked the Department whether it had considered alternatives that are in use in other cities. The Department told us that it had considered vouchers, decrementing cards and other measures, but that using pay-and-display machines is now the preferred method in most UK towns and cities. We note the Department's intention to replace over 40 of its machines (around 27 per cent) in the coming year with newer models that have enhanced capabilities, such as reading electronic smart cards. We urge the Department to replace the remainder of its machines as quickly as possible, in order to provide a better service to motorists and minimise both maintenance costs and income lost as a result of faulty machines.
C&AG's report paragraphs 34 to 35 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 247-253.
8. In light of the finding in the C&AG's report that the amount paid by Roads Service to the RUC in respect of traffic wardens' costs was inaccurate, we asked the Department why it had not put in place a system to determine exactly what it should have been paying. The Department said it was being undercharged and it had been unable to obtain enough detailed information from the RUC upon which to negotiate about charges, despite strenuous efforts over a number of years to do so.
9. It is unacceptable, in terms of public accountability, for the Department to pay for traffic wardens' services without knowing what it is paying for, or for the RUC to issue invoices without knowing what it is charging for. We therefore urge the Department and the RUC to put in place a proper framework for ensuring that an accurate amount is invoiced and paid for the service provided. This framework should form part of the proposed service level agreement between Roads Service and the RUC.
C&AG's report paragraphs 21 to 23 and 45, and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 237-245 and 258.
10. We asked the Department why it had not taken action to improve the poor service received from traffic wardens. In particular, we highlighted the very high absenteeism levels and overtime costs and the absence of modern working practices, such as using hand-held computers to issue parking tickets. The Department said it had been pressing the RUC very hard for years for more information and discussion on these matters, but that it is constrained by legislation, which imposes responsibility on the RUC for employing wardens to manage the system. Nevertheless, in our view, the Department should have taken more robust action to ensure that a properly-managed enforcement regime was in place. It is essential that the proposed service level agreement should incorporate clearly defined enforcement standards and that these should be delivered by the wardens.
C&AG's report paragraphs 14 to 16 and 24 to 26 and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 246-248 and 259-264.
11. We asked the Department whether it considered the level of fine to be a suitable deterrent to illegal parking, given that the fine is small and the probability of being detected is low. In particular, we asked why the recent increase in fines still results in lower levels of penalty than in some other parts of the United Kingdom. The Department said that the penalty is not determined by Roads Service, but is part of a schedule of endorsable offences set by way of regulations made by the Minister of the Environment. We urge DOE to keep the level of fines under regular review to ensure that they are set at a sufficiently high level to deter drivers from parking illegally.
C&AG's report paragraphs 36 and 37, and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 275-288.
12. In view of the shortcomings in the management of on-street parking, we asked the Department whether it had considered devolving responsibility to bodies such as local councils, who already have responsibility for some car parks. The Department pointed out that any change would require legislation in the Assembly, but that it was investigating the possibility of decriminalising on-street parking now that the RUC was willing to withdraw its previous objections. We welcome this positive development and recommend that Roads Service should complete its proposed feasibility study on decriminalised parking without delay.
C&AG's report paragraphs 38 to 43 and 46, and Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 224 and 254-257.
Mr John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) was examined
The Comptroller and Auditor General's reports on Structural Maintenance of
Roads (NIA 15) and Management of On-Street Parking (NIA 24/00) were considered.
[Adjourned until Wednesday 16 May 2001 at 10:30am]
* * * *
PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEE RELATING TO THE REPORT
Mr John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General, was further examined.
The Committee deliberated.
Draft Report (Structural Maintenance of Roads and Management of On-Street Parking) proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.
Ordered, That the draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.
Introduction read and agreed to
Para 1 to 2 read and agreed to.
Para 3.1 to 4 postponed
Para 7 to 21 read and agreed to
Para 3.1 to 4 read and agreed to
Para 1 to 2 read and agreed to
Para 3.1 to 4 postponed
Para 5 to 12 read and agreed to
Para 3.1 to 4 read and agreed to
[Adjourned until Wednesday 27 June 2001 at 10:30am]
* * * *
Wednesday 21 March 2001
Mr R Spence ) Department for Regional Development
The Chairperson: I welcome you all to this meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. We will deal with two aspects of Roads Service business - the maintenance of roads and the management of on-street parking in Belfast.
The road network is one of Northern Ireland's most valuable assets. In the absence of a comprehensive rail network or water-based transport system the people of Northern Ireland are heavily dependent on the road network for business and social needs. Members want to determine whether or not Northern Ireland's roads are being maintained to the necessary standards in the most efficient way.
Paragraph 3·8 of the Northern Ireland Audit Office's report entitled 'Structural Maintenance of Roads' states that £80 million a year is required
"to maintain the network in reasonable condition."
That estimate is based on the longest possible life of the surface materials. Are you satisfied that that estimate is accurate and realistic? Would it not be more prudent to base the estimate on the average life of surface materials? If calculated on that basis would it be any different? If so, what would the difference be?
Mr Spence: The public road network is 15,000 miles long and to replace it would currently cost about £13 billion. For many years the Department for Regional Development and Roads Service have been faced with the dilemma of how to maintain the network properly when adequate resources are not available. The Department for Regional Development has a statutory responsibility to maintain roads in a reasonable condition but it has not got the resources to do that properly. That means that the Department is forced into adopting a series of short-term measures such as patching and surface dressing to meet the statutory duty and to protect the public liability position.
The Department for Regional Development has updated the figure of £80 million quoted in the report and the amount now required to maintain the network in reasonable condition is more likely to be in the region of £85 million or £86 million.
Mr Orr: The Structural Maintenance Funding Plan was developed to make a case for increased structural maintenance funding. In developing that plan Roads Service felt it prudent to adopt a conservative approach, otherwise there was the danger that our case might be criticised for being exaggerated. For that reason Roads Service based its bid on the longest possible life of the various surface materials. The life expectancy of the materials was independently validated. A range of about 10% was given so motorways, for example, would need refurbished after 18 to 20 years. Roads Service went for the higher figure in order to produce a conservative bid. Had we taken the lower estimate, the bid would have been approximately 10% higher. Therefore, £80 million would have become £88 million.
As Mr Spence said, that figure of £80 million was calculated in 1998.
We have since revalued our Structural Maintenance Funding Plan in light of the increased costs of bituminous materials. That has brought the new figure up to around £86 million per year.
The Chairperson: I am a member of Lisburn Borough Council. About three or four years ago an environmental road scheme was carried out at Moira. At that time, a roundabout was relaid and you are now relaying it again, which is unnecessary. However, other parts of the road need relaid.
Mr Orr: I am not familiar with that specific instance. Nonetheless, roundabouts are subject to quite heavy stresses because of the turning movements of vehicles.
The Chairperson: The example given does come off the motorway.
Mr Orr: It may well be a skid resistant surfacing that is being laid in order to provide good skid resistance on that roundabout.
The Chairperson: As Chairman of the Committee, I receive complaints asking whether issues have been looked at. I scratch my head when I think of that job being done. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many people, it was not required.
In paragraphs 2.11 and 2.12, we are told that Roads Service has not been able to put together detailed information on the structural condition of roads outside the Trunk Road Network (TRN). That accounts for 95% of the Northern Ireland's total road network. Do you accept that the current method of visually surveying the vast majority of roads in Northern Ireland is unreliable and does not accurately establish the true condition and maintenance needs of those roads? Furthermore, how can you prioritise maintenance work for such a large part of the network if you do not have reliable information about its condition?
Mr Orr: Outside the motorway and trunk network we have a visual survey system called Maintenance Assessment Rating and Costing for Highways (MARCH). Roads Service accepts that it does not give the whole picture because it only looks at surface condition. That means that the deterioration detected by the MARCH computer system tends to undervalue the maintenance backlog. In both our structural maintenance policy review and in the Audit Office report we supplemented the MARCH system with additional information to determine the value of the maintenance backlog. We accept that the visual survey system tends to undervalue that. The difficulty is that visual survey systems are all that is available for the vast majority of the network. Even more modern systems, such as the UK Pavement Management System (UKPMS), which is a development of the MARCH system, essentially rely on visual survey methods.
Mr Beggs: In paragraph 3.13, we see that, in addition to the estimated £80 million per year needed for maintenance, there is a backlog of approximately £100 million. I am surprised at the variation in the estimates which was identified at one stage as £43 million. The figures have suddenly been revised to £100 million. Can you comment on the accuracy of the initial figures that you gave? The backlog is increasing year by year. What was the figure for the year ended March 2000 and what would you expect the figure of a backlog to be at the end of this financial year?
Mr Spence: We would estimate the current maintenance backlog to be in the region of £110 - £120 million. If we were seeking to eliminate that backlog over a reasonable amount of time and to maintain the existing load network, we would need to double what we are spending at present.
It is interesting that in Great Britain a few months ago John Prescott announced a major initiative to eliminate the backlog in road maintenance by the year 2010, for which he was able to find £30 billion. The sort of figures we are talking about are broadly equivalent to the level of expenditure in GB if you use one fortieth of the population as the method of arriving at it.
So, we have got a maintenance backlog of £110 - £120 million, and to eliminate that over a reasonable amount of time and to maintain the existing road network we need to double current spending by up to about £86 million a year.
Mr Beggs: The latest MARCH survey indicated that in 1999 there was a £43 million backlog. What are you doing to ensure an accurate estimate? Surely that figure was way off-line - it must have been half of what you now say it was. What are you doing to ensure that the estimate is accurate?
Mr Orr: I will explain by referring to page 41 of the report, figure 15. The £43 million is the backlog on the non-trunk network as assessed by the MARCH survey. However, we add the backlog on the other roads to that which we are assessing using our road monitoring machines - the deflectograph, which measures road strength, and the Sideways Force Coefficient Routine Investigation Machine (SCRIM), which measures skidding resistance. Therefore, the MARCH survey is really only one element of the total backlog cost.
Mr Beggs: We are told in paragraph 1.2 that maintaining the network is Road Service's top priority, yet in paragraph 7 on page 10 we see that there has been a steady decline in expenditure on maintenance, to the extent that it is at its lowest level (in real terms) for over 15 years. Do you still stand by the statement that maintenance is your top priority?
Mr Spence: Yes, but there is always balance to be achieved. When I took over the job, a very distinguished engineer came to me and said "Whatever you do in the Department as the permanent secretary, you should make sure the present road network is adequately maintained and, if necessary, you should abandon all other expenditure". You can imagine the reaction we would get from elected representatives if we said we were abandoning all capital projects in order to maintain the existing road network properly. You would not get a very positive response.
An element of balance is needed. We tried to give as high a priority as we can to road maintenance within those constraints, and within that to give priority to the motorway and trunk road system, which we now consider to be in reasonably good condition. However that has been at the cost of further deterioration of the remaining road network.
Mr Beggs: You said that there has to be a balance to expenditure, and that is correct. Has that balance been right? In paragraph 3.5, we see that maintenance expenditure in Northern Ireland is consistently lower than in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Have you got the balance right, given that our maintenance expenditure is much lower than other nearby regions?
Moreover, can you assure us that the full extent of the maintenance problems is being made known? Unless that is done with regard to the public representatives and the bidding process in the Department and the Civil Service, you are not doing your job and drawing attention to the seriousness of the problem. What have you done to draw attention to the full risk and the bad value for money that the lack of maintenance expenditure on roads illustrates?
Mr Spence: You are correct. We are not spending as much as we should to maintain our road network. We are spending significantly less than other parts of the United Kingdom and, as a consequence, our roads will continue to deteriorate as long as we are forced into those short-term measures. We have made those points for the last decade in the annual public expenditure round.
The decision about public expenditure allocations is for politicians to make, not civil servants. We have made our case; we published information about the condition of the road network and the Audit Office report makes some valid points about making more of that information available. We will look at how we can best do that. The Department for Regional Development has not disguised the scale of the problem. Since devolution successive Ministers have spoken openly about the huge funding deficit we face for roads, water and public transport.
Mr Beggs: Figure 12 on page 36 gives a breakdown of Roads Service's expenditure. To what extent could you find additional resources for maintenance from other parts of the Department for Regional Development's budget? For example, why does the same priority seem to be given to other maintenance projects as is given to road maintenance? Can you expand on exactly how the Department manages to spend as much money on other maintenance projects as is spent on the structural maintenance of its entire road network? Are we spending too much money building new roads?
Mr Spence: We are constantly seeking to ensure that we are spending our money wisely. We are constantly looking to improve on how we spend money. We are always looking at whether we have got our administrative structures right. At present we are in the middle of a process of change - Roads Service: Delivering Excellence - that is looking at a lot of those matters so that we can squeeze out the inefficiencies that might still exist and find better ways of doing things. At the end of the day those measures, important as they are, will not make a significant impact on the scale of the funding gap we are talking about. Mr Orr will explain the maintenance line.
Mr Orr: It has been a priority for Roads Service to try to keep other maintenance activities to a reasonable minimum. I will explain the sort of things that we are talking about when we say "other maintenance activities".
Typically, other maintenance activities would include the Winter Service at a cost of £4.5 million. There is little scope to reduce that amount further. We spend about £10 million on the operation and maintenance of street lighting; £6 million of that is spent on energy and that will rise by 9% next year. Other activities are bridge maintenance - very important for the integrity of the network - grass cutting and drainage. We spend about £5 million trying to improve road drainage systems. Most people would agree that those other maintenance activities are important. Structural maintenance should still take priority, but we do not want to reduce the money spent on other maintenance to below an acceptable minimum.
Mr Beggs: Is the balance of the percentage of money going into new roads correct given that we cannot maintain our existing roads?
Mr Spence: That is a political judgement.
Mr Beggs: Who has been making that judgement to date?
Mr Spence: If you go to any council meeting in Northern Ireland members will be demanding more road schemes, more road projects - bypasses et cetera - as well as wanting more done about street lighting, traffic calming and gritting in snowy weather. There are enormous, quite valid, pressures from elected representatives. At the end of the day the decision must be taken politically about what the balance should be.
Mr Beggs: Have you made council members aware of the serious nature of the lack of maintenance of existing roads?
Mr Spence: Yes. You can never do enough in that area. We have done much, but we can do more in the annual publications that Roads Service produces - its annual report and its corporate and business plans.
Mr Beggs: Pages nine and 10 of the Northern Ireland Audit Office report on the structural maintenance of roads show that, in a previous report published in 1992, expenditure and structural maintenance were increased quite substantially in the succeeding three years. Figure 3 on page 10 shows that there has been a steady decline in funding since 1996. Therefore, having increased the funding from 1993 to 1996 because of previous criticism it has been in decline since. Do those figures show that your Department has reduced the funding for roads to provide expenditure for something else?
Mr Spence: You use the term "We". Civil servants did not go along and recommend a reduction in road maintenance expenditure. Throughout the period we were arguing for more expenditure. What we can see is the result of other public expenditure pressures in Northern Ireland and political decisions about where -
Mr Beggs: Has money been taken from road maintenance and put in to other areas?
Mr Spence: It is fair to say that over the period money has been taken out of a number of budgets in Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs: To where has money from road maintenance been transferred?
Mr Spence: It has probably gone to law and order or to industrial development to meet immediate pressures.
Mr Beggs: Can you provide us with a list of all instances when money has been taken from the roads maintenance budget and what that money was spent on?
Mr Spence: You are talking about a process where we would have bid for money, and decisions would have been taken about how much we should get which was usually significantly less than we asked for because that money was needed for other public services. Those were the political decisions that were taken at the time, either by direct rule Ministers or since devolution.
The Chairperson: Dr McCormick, were you satisfied that bids were being made?
Dr McCormick: Yes. Bids were consistently made by the Department of Regional Development and the Department of the Environment and that has been highlighted to Ministers in the annual public expenditure cycle and subsequently in the spending reviews.
Mr Beggs: Was money transferred from the roads section of the budget to any other section within the Department of the Environment? That Department has a wide range of responsibility. You talked about law and order; that is an easy one to pass it to. Was any money moved specifically from maintenance to any other areas in the then department?
Mr Spence: I cannot remember that happening since the Department for Regional Development was set up.
Mr Beggs: Can you come back and advise us on that?
Mr Spence: We will certainly look at it, but I am not aware that it was done.
Mr Beggs: Paragraph 4.2 tells us that maintenance frequencies for roads other than motorways are much longer than recommended good practice. If that level of treatment continues some roads will be resurfaced only once in over a century. That is in contrast with good practice frequency of between 25 and 30 years. If that were to continue, would many of the minor roads fall into a serious state of disrepair in the long term? Would a major breakdown occur in some rural unclassified roads?
Mr Spence: Yes.
Mr Beggs: How do you plan to deal with such a situation?
Mr Spence: We have been making those points for many years in support of the bids we have made for extra resources. The figure that you quoted is probably the most stark. Certain roads will not be able to be resurfaced even once in a century, which means that they will deteriorate. Unless we can increase expenditure on maintaining a road network, it will deteriorate; that is the overall picture.
Mr McClelland: Dr McCormick, paragraph 4.9 on page 49 states
"In the last five years, 10% or more of Roads Service's structural maintenance budget has been allocated late in the financial year, usually around December."
Because of the lateness of that allocation, there has been difficulty in the planning and execution of work, which may result in poor value for money. Are there any steps that the Department of Finance and Personnel can take to avoid that situation?
Dr McCormick: It is better to get some resources to the budget whenever it is possible. The pattern of demand on resources tends to be that until quite late in the financial year most Departments are saying that the budgets are fully committed. There tends to be more room to manoeuvre emerging late in the year, and that is what makes it possible to see what remaining needs can take resources at that stage. Roads Service has always been on the list for that purpose. It is not the right way to do things in an ideal world.
However, there have been discussions about scheduling the roads' maintenance programme to anticipate that kind of situation so that as much of the necessary work can be carried out in the early part of the year. Another way to look at the issue would be to have more end-year flexibility, but it is for the Executive to decide how that is handled. That would create a situation in which, if additional resources were added late in the financial year, the spending would not have to happen in the bad period of the year. It could be planned and brought on-stream in a more orderly fashion. That is possible but it is not happening at the moment as the Executive are still considering their approach to the management of end-year flexibility. Those are some measures that can be taken. That is an important area to try and address.
Mr McClelland: You seem to have said that the bad practice of the past is likely to continue for some time.
Dr McCormick: We will always be looking to set the right budget at the outset. That is the proper way to approach financial planning. However, the allocation of resources is a matter for Ministers. It would not be ideal to add money late in the financial year, but it is better to do that than not to do it at all. I am not defending that as ideal or appropriate. I am putting it as "Better than nothing". If there were more orderly ways to have properly planned allocations then that should happen. However, the Executive will decide on the resources allocations.
Mr McClelland: I have to accept your explanation, but it does not seem a very satisfactory way forward. I am not sure whether the Executive are totally aware of that type of problem. However, we can at least attempt to rectify that.
Mr Orr, paragraph 4.7 on page 48 explains in some detail the process for checking whether roads need to be treated to improve their skidding resistance. We are told that 17% (or 240 kilometres) of the TRN had defects which would cost approximately £21 million to repair. Is that an unacceptable level in view of the increase risk of accidents and potential public liability claims? Does that need to be addressed immediately?
Mr Orr: I agree that it is undesirable, and that is the reason that we have been highlighting the need to move to a proper funding level for structural maintenance, as represented by the Structural Maintenance Funding Plan. The 17% accounts for roads that are below investigatory level. It does not mean that the skidding resistance is defective. However, they are roads that are triggered for investigation. We conduct those surveys. We treat the worst of them by resurfacing or by surface dressing. We have to erect warning signs to warn of slippery road conditions on those that we cannot afford to treat. I accept that it is undesirable and we would like to reduce that figure down to around 5%. We can only do that if we get the resources.
Mr McClelland: Paragraph 4.8 states
"Some Local Authorities in Great Britain take the view that on a well-maintained network, less than 5% of roads should be at or below the investigatory level."
That is substantially over three times higher than the rest of Great Britain. Is that correct?
Mr Orr: I accept that and it is a function of the investment that has been allocated to us.
Mr McClelland: Those are only the figures for the TRN. Do you have a figure for the rest of the road network?
Mr Orr: No, because the motorway and Trunk Road Network is most prone to low skidding resistance because it is caused by the polishing effect of vehicles. Roads with higher levels of traffic are more susceptible to the problem. That is why we target the motorways and the trunk network.
Mr McClelland: Do you intend, at a later stage, to try and gauge the size of the problem on the non-trunk road system?
Mr Orr: That would not be part of our immediate plans because we believe it is better to target our resources where the problem is worst. However, under our remedial scheme we take a very close look at police accident statistics. If clusters of wet skidding accidents appear, either at a single location or along a route, those are investigated in the same way.
Mr McClelland: Paragraph 4.11 of the report states that Roads Service accepts that the current level of funding is forcing it to adopt maintenance practices which are not achieving good value for money. We are given case studies that illustrate that better economic alternatives could be pursued. Are all your schemes supported by economic appraisals or some form of cost-benefit? Are any of them?
Mr Orr: The programme is supported by a cost-benefit analysis, and that was most recently evaluated in our policy review on structural maintenance. The problem referred to on page 49 is that, given an allocation that is only half of the amount required, we have to adopt a strategy to deal with that. The strategy that we have adopted is to maintain the motorways and trunk network in a reasonable condition, because those are Northern Ireland's key strategic routes.
For the other roads, we find that we do not have enough money left to do the good value resurfacing that we would like to do. We have to adopt a policy of patch and mend. That is simply to protect our public liability position.
Mr McClelland: I am trying to tease out from you how you make decisions, given the limitations of your budget. Is there some sort of cost-benefit carried out among a variety of projects? Is there an economic appraisal of whether project A should take priority over project B? How do you come to that?
Mr Orr: For example, in the case of the motorways and trunk network, projects are prioritised in relation to the engineering assessments that are made with the help of our objective road condition machines. A stretch of road that has a poor remaining life, as measured by the deflectograph, would receive a high priority. Skidding resistance is also a factor, as are wheel track rutting and the presence of cracking. Those various assessments, taken on an objective basis, are the main decision-making mechanisms on those types of roads.
Mr McClelland: This may not directly relate to that, but how is the decision made on the allocation of budget between the ratings?
Mr Orr: That decision is made on a number of indicators of need. For example, on the motorways and trunk network it is based on the indicators mentioned, such as skidding resistance, deflectograph readings et cetera. On the non-trunk network the sort of indicators we are looking at are the length of the road network, the volume of traffic on that network and the incidence of defects as measured in our inspection systems. They are done on an objective basis and allocated to our divisions in that way.
Mr Carrick: Mr Spence, you have already stated that the Department is looking at the administrative structures and Roads Service delivering excellence. That is good as far as it goes. You can expand on those two issues in your answers to my questions. First, you will be acutely aware of some of the adverse publicity that the Department has come in for.
For example, in the publication dated 22 February, the comment was made that more people are now pushing paperwork around than are out doing jobs on the ground. You have to defend that position. You commented on it.
I refer you to the Public Service Agreement and the Budget figures for 2001-02. The Public Service Agreement under the Programme for Government indicates that 35% of Roads Service's budget for 2001-02 is for salaries, wages, expenses and administrative support. Are you concerned about the level of cost which appears to be a high proportion of the entire budget? Has there ever been a review of staffing to find out what they are all doing and if they are really needed?
Mr Spence: Yes, there are constant reviews of Roads Service staffing. It is significantly lower than it was ten years ago, as more work has gone out to the private sector. The number of industrials employed is significantly less than a few years ago. The whole of Roads Service is subject to a constant process of either market testing or "best value". It looks at each business area to see whether work is being done in the most efficient way and whether the private sector could do things better and more cheaply.
I can assure you that there is absolutely no complacency about the efficiency of Roads Service. We have always given that a very high priority. We put a lot of pressure on Roads Service staff to look at their business processes. We have encouraged the theme of continuous improvement. We have introduced awards for staff that come up with ideas for saving money and doing things better.
It is a continuing process. You can never say that you are totally confident that Roads Service has the right level of staff to spend the resources that it has. It is a continuing theme, both for myself as the permanent secretary and for senior management in Roads Service.
Mr Carrick: I will be coming back to "best value". You referred to the reduction in staff over the past ten years. Are those figures available in respect of administrative staff? Can we view them?
Mr Spence: Yes.
Mr Carrick: Paragraph 2.2 deals with the cost of inspecting the roads for which
"The frequency and method of inspection varies depending on the road classification and volume of traffic."
However, the bottom line is that the cost of inspections billed officially during 1998-99 totalled £6·7 million.
We are told in that section of the report that the inspection process is "extremely labour intensive." Every road in the network is currently inspected at least once every eight weeks. Mr Orr will be aware of the part of the country I come from, in which we have the problem of what I call "floating bitmac" over what appears to be floating concrete. Joins in the concrete result in cracks in the "bitmac". I am continually inundated with complaints about that type of problem. However, we appear not to be able to do much about it. Apple farmers in the area are now complaining that as they bring their boxed apples from their orchards by trailer, they are damaged by excess jolting. There is a knock-on effect for the agricultural industry.
Do you agree that the cost of inspection is far too high? Is the Department taking measures to reduce the cost, such as greater use of technology referred to in paragraph 2.3 and the reduced inspection frequencies for low traffic roads referred to in paragraph 2.4?
Furthermore, have you been able to achieve any reductions in the cost of inspection since the Audit Office report in June 2000? Finally, have you considered a hotline for members of the public to report defects?
Mr Spence: We have been reviewing inspection levels. As a result some 16 of the 126 existing inspectors' posts have been saved by introducing new approaches. That has produced an anticipated saving of around £200,000 per annum. That is the good side. The downside is that we have had to move most of those posts to supplement the inspections of the reinstatements by utilities. As the Committee knows from a recent Audit Office report, that has increased significantly and is causing much difficulty. We have saved on inspections but we have had to put more effort into the utilities' reinstatement.
Mr Orr: I would like to explain what the people do and why they are required. It is to protect our public liability position. The Committee will be aware that in the mid-1980s there was significant expenditure on public liability compensation. That has been significantly reduced, but only because robust inspection systems are in place. There is no alternative to having men and women out inspecting the roads at regular intervals.
In response to that particular section of the report, we revised our road maintenance standards and we now inspect less frequently in the lower traffic roads. By the same token we have reduced the response target times for repairing defects. We are inspecting slightly less but we hope we are fixing roads more quickly. We have tried to react in that way.
One of our "best value" projects, which is ongoing, is to take a radical look at the detection and repair of potholes and defects on the rural network.
Mr Carrick: Is the policy in danger of being driven too much by the public liability concern as opposed to the good practice of maintaining the road network?
Mr Spence: Tension certainly exists when there is not enough money. We have a statutory duty to keep the road in a reasonable condition, and we are faced with a history of very high public liability claims in Northern Ireland. We do get driven into taking short-term measures rather than doing things that make more sense in the long term. The report's three case studies show that clearly. There is a dramatic difference in cost between doing the job properly and what we can do with the money available, and I am afraid we do get pushed into short-term compromises that do not make long-term sense.
Mr Carrick: Paragraph 5.11 and 5.12 refer to the delivery of "best value" in Great Britain, which involves setting targets for continuous improvement and delivering by the most effective, economic and efficient means available. We understand that the Department has developed a Best Value Model which will be refined during this year and applied throughout the agency. What are the main points of that model, what remains to be done to finalise it and when do you expect it to be fully implemented?
Mr Orr: The Best Value Model is really a process of individual "best value" projects. The one of most relevance to structural maintenance is the find and fix, detection and repair of defects. I mentioned that earlier.
Mr Carrick: Is it as basic as that?
Mr Orr: That is what we are calling it and, ultimately, that is what it is - finding defects and fixing them.
There are other developments. For example, the United Kingdom is currently developing a new code of good practice for highway maintenance. We have a member on the steering group of that project and it is interesting that they have taken Northern Ireland maintenance standards as their basis for discussion. Therefore, we have been quite active in the area of "best value" and in trying to make improvements.
I read the journal of the Institution of Civil Engineers dated 8 March 2001, which contained an article on a new solution to an old problem, which was a revolutionary pothole repair system known as the jet patcher. We have been using that system for more than a year. Therefore, we have been open to new developments and to doing things better. We have been encouraged to do so by the level of funding available to us. We have had to seek out better, more efficient ways of doing things.
Mr Carrick: Mr Orr referred to a process, and I understand that that process is ongoing. At some stage, 90% of the process will be reached, which will include the core activity. When will the process be fully implemented?
Mr Spence: The process takes about five years. However, part of the organisation - approximately 20% - is taken each year. It is incorrect, perhaps, to take the focus on best value as the only thing we are trying to do.
We are also engaged in a comprehensive approach to improve the way we deliver things generally, and that means going back to the start and asking ourselves should we be doing certain things in the first place; could the private sector do them better?; how do others do these things?; should we benchmark effectively against other organisations?; what good ideas does the organisation have to help us perform better; and where should we be pioneering rather than waiting for others to invent solutions that we could then adopt? A whole range of measures is being carried out as well as "best value".
I want to impress that there is no room for complacency. When you have significantly less resources than you need the pressure is very much on your organisation to deliver what it can with the money available.
Mr Carrick: That leads nicely into my final question, which relates to paragraph 5.13 of the report, and to benchmarking. You said that Roads Service is developing benchmarking to enable it to compare performance and opportunities for improving efficiency. When will you have the necessary detailed management information to enable meaningful comparisons to be made with other road authorities across a range of activities?
Mr Spence: That is a constant struggle because we are continually trying to identify performance targets for Roads Service. That makes sense given the resources available. It enables us to challenge and stretch the organisation, forcing it to be innovative. During the past year we have employed Capita management consultants to help us produce more challenging performance targets. However, we are involved in a whole range of things. For example, Roads Service is involved in the Celtic Highways Benchmarking Club, which includes seven of the Scottish road authorities and Cornwall County Council. We are comparing our performance with those organisations. We are also a member of a best practice club, which is a networking organisation with over 500 members from both the private and public sectors. We are doing a lot to ensure that we compare our performance fairly with other organisations.
Mr Carrick: Have you received the report from Capita management consultants?
Mr Spence: We have received their report and are considering the findings.
Mr Carrick: Is core benchmarking activity going on at present?
Mr Spence: Yes.
The Chairperson: Mr Orr made a point about public liability. In the 1980s, were most public liability claims fraudulent and nothing to do with the condition of the roads?
Mr Spence: It is true to say that a lot of claims were made. At one stage we were spending over £6 million a year. That has dropped by almost half for two reasons. First, we have been more successful in responding to the immediate weaknesses or faults in roads through patching and emergency repairs. Secondly, we set up a strong central claims unit that was quite rigorous in contesting claims and challenging people to prove their case. That has levelled off the number of claims effectively. It is hard to say categorically that there were a lot of fraudulent claims. However, we have reduced the annual expenditure by taking a more rigorous approach and by fighting cases more strongly.
Mr Close: The theme that seems to be emerging is that of scarce resources. I would like to direct my first question to the Treasury Officer of Accounts in the Department of Finance and Personnel because we are in a situation in which Roads Service is consistently putting in bids that are not matched. It consistently gets less than is required to maintain the roads network, which has been referred to as a very important asset to Northern Ireland. We are told that it costs £13 billion, but year after year it is not receiving the money required. Dr McCormick said that money was allocated in the past couple of months - 10% was mentioned. In 1998-99 £5·5 million, which is 15% of the maintenance budget, was allocated.
The Quarry Products Association of Northern Ireland has stated that all maintenance, other than emergency repairs, should be avoided between December and February. It is a sinful waste of scarce resources to add money to a Department whose bids have been there, and which historically has demonstrated that it is needed. However, money is thrown at them in the last couple of months of every year when it will be wasted. It will be used like a sticking plaster over a pothole, which, as everybody knows, will be ripped out after a couple of cars have driven over it. The money is literally poured down the drain.
The whole budgeting and allocation process needs to be seriously looked at. If money is available at the end of the year it suggests that some Departments are getting too much money and consistently not spending it in the time allocated. A reprioritisation needs to be done of where the money goes initially, rather than having a consistent and constant apparent waste of scarce resources. That needs to be taken on board and thought about strategically in the long term. Should we penalise Departments who do not spend their allocation?
Dr McCormick: There is a continual review of pressures on public expenditure as the year progresses. It is a matter of forming judgements and looking ahead at every stage of the decision-making process. These are ultimately political judgements for Ministers in terms of priorities. The key thing is to ensure that the relevant information is available to inform those judgements. We seek to consistently do that.
Allocations are made in good faith at the outset of a financial year. Those are based on the estimated requirements for the range of services. There is no shortage whatsoever of demand for resources from all the sectors. Judgements are made; allocations are then built in to the main estimates. That becomes the starting point for the financial year.
As the year progresses, it turns out that some of the judgements formed in good faith at the outset of the year prove to be overestimates. It is never possible to say where that will happen, because there is no totally consistent pattern. It could never be said that Department X has always overestimated its figures - the pattern is different every year.
A new judgement will then have to be formed, on each monitoring round, for re-allocations. That is again based on the best information available at that time. Ministers then take the decisions and the allocations are set into the Supplementary Estimates.
The pattern tends to be that some savings do not emerge until late in the year. We have expressed concern about that to Departments. We have talked about the possibility of those savings not being made available to the original Departments from which they came. Departments object to that because they feel that they have provided the information in good faith.
Work on this issue needs to be developed further, with better strategic planning of the spending allocations. The Executive are seeking to achieve that through developing budgeting processes. That will be helped by the development of public service agreements as regards spending, outputs and objectives.
In the future, under resource accounting and budgeting, which will come into effect from 1 April 2001, the resource costs of deterioration of assets will start to impact more directly on the system. It is not part of the main control system at the moment, as regards the departmental expenditure limit.
From 2003-04 onwards, when the Treasury completes the process of introducing resource accounting and budgeting, the real cost of deterioration of assets will start to hit the Budget more directly. If we bring the information through, it will mean that some of the choices we face will be clearer. The need to look at those issues lies ahead and it provides an opportunity to take on those issues more strongly.
From our perspective of advising on how the system should operate, we feel that there is a need to clarify estimates and to make them as tight and rigorous as possible. Departments generally do that in good faith. The figures often change after the judgement is formed. I do not accept that we can just assume that money will be available, because the pattern is not consistent.
On many occasions in the past, monitoring rounds have revealed new pressures that have then inhibited the scope for reallocation. That is a difficult context. The range of expenditure demands is very high, and that pattern is undesirable in an ideal world.
Mr Close: I thank the Treasury Officer of Accounts for his comprehensive reply. With a mixture of devolution and resource accounting, the words of the song are pertinent: "Things can only get better". I hope that that will be the case.
I want to probe the planned maintenance aspect of Roads Service. Paragraph 3.6 states that
"the rate of deterioration to the road network can be reduced through a proper programme of planned maintenance"over the expected life of roads. From figure 14 on page 40, we understand that an estimate of funding requirements is produced. Do you also produce a long-term strategic plan to prioritise the maintenance programme and optimise resources?
Mr Orr: The Structural Maintenance Funding Plan on page 40 is an independently validated assessment of what you refer to as a proper basis for funding structural maintenance.
Of course, as we have said, that was the 1998 version, which has subsequently been recalculated at £86 million. We need a strategic plan to deal with that, because our allocation is about half that amount. The plan is to concentrate on the motorways and TRN; to keep those key strategic routes in reasonable condition; to repair potholes and defects in the rest of the network in accordance with our statutory obligation to keep roads in reasonable condition; and to spend the remainder of what we receive on a prioritised list of other roads based on engineering assessments. I am not sure if that answers your question.
Mr Close: Nor am I. My vision is that somewhere a strategic plan exists that prioritises those roads that require maintenance and outlines when they will be looked at. It would be a rolling programme. Does that exist?
Mr Orr: You would need £86 million per year to do that. You say that because this section of road was resurfaced 19 years ago it must be done next year. To have a planned system of maintenance across the network would require £86 million per year. That is really what the Structural Maintenance Funding Plan says. As we do not have that we have to operate different systems.
Mr Close: That lack of funding poses the question: how can you or the general public be satisfied that you are prioritising the worst areas so that scarce resources are directed towards their maintenance? Without that plan it is difficult - at this stage - to convince me that that prioritisation occurs and that those scarce resources are being used to their optimum.
Mr Orr: In the absence of the £86 million per year, maintenance decisions about the motorways and TRN, for instance, are prioritised on the basis of objective measurements. We have a machine called a deflectograph that measures the remaining life left in the motorways and trunk road network, a SCRIM machine, which measures skidding resistance, and a high-speed road monitor. In the absence of a periodic maintenance system, which would entail resurfacing every 20 years even if that was not required, we try to prioritise decisions on the basis of engineering judgements.
A similar system is operated at district council level by section engineers who undertake engineering judgements. They also take account of public representatives' opinions and consult with councils in order to formulate a maintenance programme. However, in the absence of a proper level of funding we have to accept that the programme is far from ideal.
Mr Close: It is something of a chicken and egg scenario. I ask to you to consider formulating a more strategic plan. I accept the point that you made about resources; I am not trying to minimise that. I just feel strongly that such a plan might produce better value for money from the scarce resources available.
Mr Spence: I do not want to oversimplify matters - Mr Orr will tell me if I have done - but he is trying to explain that we concentrate on the motorways and TRN. Everybody accepts that that is sensible. After that it is essentially a case of doing the worst first. How you do that involves a degree of science and listening to what local elected representatives and others say. However, when the necessary resources are so limited it becomes a reactive process in which the worst is tackled first.
Mr Close: The point has been made. I accept what you say about the "worst first". There is a great deal of "worst", so there must also be a great deal of "first" - that is not happening. Paragraph 2.5 on page 25 states
"UKPMS is designed to assist highways authorities to plan structural maintenance work more effectively", thus "optimising the allocation of funds".
That becomes particularly important where funds are scarce. The last audit report on the subject, which was completed in 1992, said that you hoped to introduce the system within three to five years. Why have you not done that yet?
Mr Spence: It is important to remember that the project is essentially a national scheme developed by the private sector on a commercial basis. The timescale for its full availability is therefore outside our direct control.
Mr Orr: The system has been specified by a consortium of UK road authorities, of which the Roads Service is an active member. The means of procuring it was to make the specification available to the private sector to allow them, in a sort of public/private partnership, to develop computer systems which might be sold to road authorities. The full system has recently become available from three private sector suppliers; it came on-stream towards the middle of 2000. In the autumn of that year we undertook a pilot survey of UKPMS on one of our section areas. We are now well placed to roll that out through the rest of the Province probably in 2002-03, when we cover all the problems. However, we are pleased that the system is now fully available, and like many other UK road authorities we intend to use it.
Mr Close: In paragraph 4.13 on page 54, we read that the Highways Agency in Great Britain engaged the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) review and to advise on the priority of its maintenance programme. Have you any plans to get advice on best practice and methodology from the TRL as recommended in the report?
Mr Orr: The Transport Research Laboratory is one of many private sector consultancies advising on maintenance management. There are many others such as Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and WDM Ltd both leading consultancies. We have retained Prof Snaith, who is regarded as a leading expert on maintenance management and has an international reputation. He is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. We therefore feel that we have obtained good advice from consultancies and do not feel it necessary to identify the specific private sector consultancy commissioned by the Highways Agency.
Mr Close: Can you elaborate? Why is it not as good as the others you have mentioned?
Mr Orr: I am not saying it is not as good, merely that a number of consultants are available. We chose Prof Snaith as our consultant, the Highways Agency chose TRL. Why another organisation picks one over another has no significance.
Mr Close: Is there a cost factor?
Mr Orr: No, because the TRL is a private sector consultancy. I am sure the daily rates for their top people are much the same as other consultants.
Mr Dallat: How much of this horror story would you attribute to ghosts of the past, or does the Civil Service have some responsibility for the neglect of the last 30 years? You were very careful to separate the politicians from the civil servants, but how much responsibility for this do you accept?
Mr Spence: The report highlights a significant legacy of underinvestment in our infrastructure. This time last year we were struggling with finding £180 million just to keep the railways open. A few weeks ago this Committee produced a report on river pollution which called for significant investment in waste water treatment. The Audit Office has a report on water leakage, which shows the scale of investment needed there. This document is just more evidence of the underinvestment in the physical infrastructure. One will find the same in health and education.
Peter Robinson and Gregory Campbell have both said that billions of pounds are needed to redress this infrastructure deficit. It has arisen because of past decisions on public expenditure and priorities. Consequently, there is never enough money to meet all the demands of education, employment and roads. It has often been easier to squeeze the spending on basic infrastructure when the alternative is to cut the number of teachers, doctors or to reduce money for industrial promotion.
This is a product of all those factors over the years and not a matter that civil servants decided. Civil servants put the facts to Ministers, whether under direct rule or since devolution, saying "here are the choices, here are the pressures" and Ministers have had to make decisions. Inevitably, very large services will have received less money than they needed.
Mr Dallat: It is just another chapter in a story of absolute neglect, but at least we now have an Assembly and a Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise it. With the motorway between our two main cities still no further than Randalstown and a legacy of debt, when will we have a proper standard of roads, or indeed railways, which you say has been reprieved in the short term? Given this legacy of maintenance neglect, how can you promise the young people of Northern Ireland a decent motorway system between the two main cities and a railway system that will not damage the environment?
Mr Spence: We need about £2 billion over the next 10 years in order to maintain the roads properly, to deal with this backlog and to upgrade the strategic road network. This will include the motorway system and the cost of providing us with a modern, European public transport system. No one disagrees that this is the scale of investment needed. Increased public expenditure and the greater involvement of the private sector will be necessary to meet this investment.
Mr Dallat: What happened over the 30 years? What use was made of European funding? Did Whitehall choke any initiative from the Northern Ireland Civil Service to source the European funding which would have given us a standard of public transport, roads and railways comparable to that of the Republic of Ireland?
Mr Spence: There was a lot of investment, with European assistance, in public transport, particularly in the railways. It has never been sufficient, because our needs are greater than the money available.
Mr Dallat: In 1986 a survey questioned whether you needed to retain the 9,000 miles of unclassified roads. Has that been looked at recently?
Mr Spence: It is a question of whether we should abandon some of the unclassified roads on which traffic is light. First, it is unlikely to be politically acceptable. Secondly, it may not work, as we do not spend much on them anyway. Would those fronting it inherit the public liability responsibility? Who would be responsible for maintaining the right of way? Although it sounds a plausible way of saving money, its political acceptability is so remote that we think it better to concentrate on getting enough money to ensure the better maintenance of those roads.
Mr Dallat: That will come as a relief to the Ulster Farmers' Union and to many rural dwellers. Heavy lorries are pounding the life out of many of the smaller roads. Have you quantified the damage that they do? Do you have any plans for restricting weight limits on roads that are not capable of carrying these monsters?
Mr Spence: Eighty-five percent of all roads are old country lanes which have been tarmacked and which do not have proper foundations. The increased rate and volume of traffic means that they cannot survive in a reasonable condition without significant expenditure.
Weight restrictions are a product of European law, and I do not want to go too deeply into our current restrictions without turning to my colleagues.
Mr Orr: Heavy goods vehicles do have a disproportionately damaging effect on the road network and structure and also on narrow country lanes and verges. There has been an increase in the size of agricultural vehicles, for example, milk collection vehicles; but we must recognise that one cannot restrict such traffic when it needs access to premises off the road. However, we do try to restrict heavy goods vehicles using narrow rural roads as shortcuts. We do have powers to impose weight limits on such vehicles, and we do use them.
Mr Dallat: A recent Northern Ireland Audit Office Report, 'Control of River Pollution in Northern Ireland' contained the recommendation that the "polluter-pays" principle should be applied. Have you any plans to apply a similar principle to those who dig up utilities and make a mess of streets and town centres? Have you anything to say to your departmental divisions when they dig up town centres and remove paviours and bricks and replace them with tar or concrete to deface once attractive areas?
Mr Spence: People pay fuel tax and car tax to the national Exchequer, and these contribute to improving our road transport. We have been looking at developers' contributions in Northern Ireland and considering whether those undertaking significant building programmes should pay more of the cost of providing the infrastructure, sewerage, and roads. Perhaps, in some cases, they might contribute to public transport costs, and some work is being done on that. There has been a separate Audit Office report on utilities.
The utilities have a statutory right to open the road to install their services. The Department for Regional Development tries to ensure that the roads are reinstated properly and quickly. If the Executive were to charge utilities for using the public road for their services it would open up an issue which could not be solely addressed in Northern Ireland. That would have to be handled at United Kingdom level, and I am not aware of any serious suggestions in that regard.
Mention was made of the reaction to the Northern Ireland Audit Office's report on utilities which dealt with the additional costs of the reinstatement of roads. That was blown out of all proportion by some of the media which claimed that about £10 million a year had been wasted. However, the Northern Ireland Audit Office merely said that when a road is opened for a utility and then reinstated, it is weakened - no matter how well it has been reinstated. The Department for Regional Development estimated, and the Audit Office agreed, that the old openings in the roads were a deciding factor in about 25% of structural maintenance, and that was valued at up to £10 million a year.
Media comments exaggerated that. No road authority in the United Kingdom has the power to recover costs from the utilities, and the Department for Regional Development is no exception.
Mr Dallat: I am not sure that the claims were exaggerated. It is a common complaint to public representatives that people installing utilities are "financial vandals". They make millions of pounds from installing services in public roads, but they leave the Department for Regional Development to pick up the repair costs for many years to come. That is no exaggeration. It was a useful report that focused the public's attention on what is going on. In future the Department for Regional Development will get many complaints much earlier, when, it is hoped, the Department will be in a position to do something about them.
Do developers contribute to new roadways and networks that are necessitated by the out-of-town shopping centres which are killing off town centres?
Mr Spence: May I return to the question of utilities. I was not suggesting that the concerns were exaggerated. There are genuine concerns about the impact of utilities' work. I was suggesting that the media interpretation of some of the figures was slightly exaggerated. That must be addressed.
The planners and Roads Service decide on developers' contributions, and they consider what part of the infrastructure the developer should contribute to. Two of the most significant developments were at Forestside and Sprucefield, where the scale of the developments was such that it had a significant impact on traffic movements. Developers were required to pay for infrastructure improvements to the roadworks outside the curtilage of their site to help cope with the increased traffic generated by the development.
The Chairperson: Mr Dowdall, have you any comment on Mr Spence's remark that the public utilities question was exaggerated by the media?
Mr Dowdall: I have some sympathy with the media coverage, but Mr Dallat put that in perspective by emphasising the public's concern, and Mr Spence recognised that.
Mr Hilditch: The patching on the roads is always a good indicator of deterioration. The level of patching is an interesting topic for elected representatives and for the public. Paragraph 2·21 shows that expenditure in patching has accounted for approximately 30% of the total maintenance budget over the last five years, and Roads Service would ideally like it to be about 10%. Why is the level of patching so high and what measures can we take to reduce it?
Mr Spence: Because we are trying to keep the road in a serviceable condition, and we are trying to avoid excessive public liability claims. We are in no doubt that in the long term it is not the sensible thing to do. The long-term answer is to spend money properly on maintaining the road, and, in a sense, this is another example of our "worst first" position. We have to take action to make the road serviceable, but ideally we should be doing much less patching.
Mr Hilditch: Do divisional road managers decide for themselves what level of patching to carry out, or is there central policy guidance?
Mr Orr: It is governed by our road maintenance standards, which state that a defect over 20 mm must be repaired in a certain time. The inspector looks for such defects, and, once detected, they will be repaired by patching. It tends to be driven by the inspection regime, rather than by high-level decision making.
Mr Hilditch: Occasionally, a contractor will arrive in a street on Monday morning to carry out some work. Other work, however, may need to be done in this street, and another contractor may arrive the following morning to carry it out. What strategy do you have for looking at inspections overall, and how can it be tied up to help alleviate such situations?
Mr Orr: We try to co-ordinate our own work as much as we can. For example, if we were renewing a street lighting system, we would put the new cables in before resurfacing any footways. I agree with you, however; that that sort of thing does happen.
Mr Hilditch: May I return to the issue of patching.
Mr Orr: We are not the only people who do patching. A utility might do some reinstatement work of its own, and we cannot control the timing.
Mr Hilditch: According to paragraph 2.15, public liability claims are rising, and almost £3·5 million was paid out in 1998-99, representing 8% of your maintenance spend. What are the main causes of damage giving rise to claims? What measures can you take to reduce this level of compensation? You said earlier that you had taken a more rigorous approach. Can you give us further details?
Mr Orr: The public liability compensation bill peaked at about £6 million in the mid-to-late 1980s. The establishment of the Central Claims Unit and a much better inspection system managed to drive that down to about £4 million by the mid-1990s. I am pleased to say that it has fallen even further since then.
Last year it was under £3 million, and in this current financial year we hope that it will be nearer £2 million. We have been quite successful in driving it down. The trend is towards more vehicle damage claims rather than personal injury claims such as tripping over things, and I must accept that that is mainly as a result of road surface defects. The increase in vehicle damage claims is an indicator of the problem that we are desperately trying to deal with, despite inadequate resources.
Mr Hilditch: I note from paragraph 5·3 that Roads Service has been successful in meeting its key targets. However, the targets have not changed since 1996, and paragraph 5·4 tells us that you were to review these targets in the year 2000-01. What was the outcome of this review and have the targets been made more challenging?
Mr Spence: I mentioned earlier that we commissioned Capita - a firm of consultants - to look at our key performance targets. Its preliminary findings showed that the targets for the structural condition of the road network remained realistic. We have asked Capita to do further work.
This is a difficult area. Without the necessary resources, one could set unachievable performance targets. Therefore, targets must bear some relationship to the resources available. At the same time, they must stretch and challenge the organisation.
The Chairperson: Are you entitled to keep the savings made, or must you give them back to the Department?
Mr Orr: We try not to give anything back.
The Chairperson: Do you reallocate them?
Mr Orr: Savings made on inspectors, for example, are departmental running costs and cannot normally be reallocated to work on the ground. That is why such savings have been reallocated to try to police the utilities more effectively.
The Chairperson: We understand the difficulties that the Department has with the shortfall in funding for roads maintenance. You said that this was mainly as a result of political decisions. There are politicians and there are politicians, and, as Mr Dallat said, these decisions have been made over 30 years of direct rule. I hope that these decisions will now be made by the Assembly.
Mr Close: The people of Northern Ireland have the worst public transport system in the UK; therefore they are more dependent on their cars than anyone else in the UK. They pay more for cars than anyone else in the UK. They pay more for fuel than anyone else in the UK, more to insure and to drive their cars than anyone else in the UK. They pay the same road tax as everyone else in the UK, yet they have the worst maintained roads and the highest level of road fatalities in the UK. Do you see a direct correlation between those statistics?
Mr Spence: There is very little that I could disagree with there. It is an accurate summary. People here pay the same taxes, but they put up with road conditions that are not as good as in some other parts of the UK.
The comparison with the Republic is becoming even starker, because it is investing heavily in its strategic road network. Many of its rural roads are in a poor condition, and it is struggling to cope with that. However, it seems to be able to throw a lot of money at the problem. I suspect that we will see a big improvement in the condition of the Republic's road network outside the trunk roads and motorways.
Mr Close: Do you accept the link between the state of maintenance and the very high level of road deaths?
Mr Spence: Not necessarily. The evidence suggests that a very high percentage of road accidents is caused by people driving too fast for the road conditions.
Mr Close: And the road conditions are bad.
Mr Spence: They can be a factor in some cases. Skid resistance, which Mr Orr mentioned, is certainly a contributing factor.
The Chairperson: Mr O'Connor, you wanted to make a short point.
Mr O'Connor: I wanted to make a few points.
The Chairperson: We do not have time for a few points.
Mr O'Connor: I have not made any points yet, Mr Close has made two.
Mr O'Connor: It seems to me that the contractors working for Roads Service farm their work out to sub-contractors, who then farm it out to further sub-contractors - each in turn is making money. Are we getting the standard of road surfacing for which we are paying? We could not have a golf course on the streets of Larne because there are far too many holes and bunkers. The standard of some of the work done by Phoenix Gas after it has installed utilities is appalling. The road might be opened one day for somebody to put something in and is then resurfaced. It has hardly time to bed in before it is opened again for something else. Phoenix Gas has used the dual carriageway on the way into Larne rather than open the hard shoulder. This means that it will have to shut the dual carriageway if its wants to work at the service pipes. There seems to be a lack of strategy.
Maintenance here is at the lowest level for 15 years, and we are papering over the cracks. I accept the need for more money, but how can you convince us to vote more money to road maintenance if the standard of service is not what we think it should be? We must bear in mind that some of the work and some of the specifications for resurfacing have not been adequate. As a consequence, the resurfacing must be done again in two or three years, perhaps even sooner.
We could get value for money if there were proper penalty clauses for work not being done properly, or a proper amount of retention to make sure that, if there is a problem, the contractor finishes the job properly. Can you convince me that changes are being made? You must be aware of these things happening; you cannot be the only person in Northern Ireland who is not.
Mr Spence: I have certainly seen them near where I live. Most of the issues raised were about road openings by utilities. These have doubled in the last five years - the figure is about 46,000. A number of utilities have the legal right to open the road; the challenge to them, and us, is to ensure that the road is reinstated as effectively and as quickly as possible. The Minister has invited all the utilities to talk to him about their performance. The first of those meetings will take place in the next few days.
Mr O'Connor: Do you accept that the performance has not been good?
Mr Spence: The performance has been patchy - some good and some bad.
Mr O'Connor: Does the buck stop with you, the accounting officer in the Department for Regional Development?
Mr Spence: We are not accountable for how they reinstate the roads - they are accountable for that.
Mr O'Connor: You are at the top of the Department, just below the Minister. When there was no Minister, you were responsible for roads. If someone is not doing his or her job, it is someone's fault. If a utility does not reinstate the road properly, why is it not made to do so? Why does your staff not ensure that the utility does it properly? The buck has to stop somewhere. It is no good saying that these people have underperformed - they have been allowed to underperform.
Mr Spence: Parliament gives the utilities the legal right to open the road to install their services. They are legally liable for proper reinstatement, not us.
Mr O'Connor: If they do not reinstate the roads, Roads Service is left to face public liability claims arising from the state of the roads.
Mr Spence: The utilities are responsible for the public liability claims for up to two years after they have re-opened a road. Therefore, they carry the responsibility.
Mr O'Connor: In Larne the roads have been re-opened countless times. It seems to be a complete waste of money, because they are all surfaced, then re-opened again and again. This is money, roads and maintenance. I am a layman and may be wrong; however, I do not see the job being done properly. Why should we give you more money to do something that we do not see being done properly in the first place? That would be throwing good money after bad.
Mr Spence: It is undoubtedly a very significant problem, which is partly a result of economic growth. So many people want to install these services that a temporary, and often unsatisfactory, reinstatement is made. Somebody else digs up the road again leaving two unsatisfactory temporary reinstatements. Eventually, there is a requirement to reinstate the road properly. The Committee may want a separate meeting later in the year on this, as it is a major problem.
The Chairperson: May we now turn our attention to the second report 'Management of On-street Parking'. We understand that the RUC are responsible for the management of this, but they are not here today to answer questions. Perhaps you will be able to answer for them. What are you doing to draw the lack of prosecutions and the lack of enforcement on this issue to the attention of the RUC? Paragraph 6 the Comptroller & Auditor General's report states that in 1998 consultants reported high levels of illegal parking in Belfast - some as high as 94%. What specific action did you take on the foot of the consultants' report to tackle the problem of illegal parking? How have the RUC responded to the report?
Mr Spence: We welcome this report and its helpful and pertinent information. For some time the Department has been very concerned about how the arrangements have been operating in practice. We are constrained by the legislation which requires us to work with the police and traffic wardens. Under current legislation we have no alternative enforcement agent.
For some time we have been talking to the police, or seeking information from the police, about how the present arrangements could be improved. As you can imagine, the police have had other priorities to deal with in recent years, and there has been difficulty - I must be frank about this - in getting clear information from the police on a number of matters. I am glad to say that we now can. This report has enabled us to hold a more serious discussion with the RUC on the matter. We want, through a service level agreement, to improve the quality of the service provided at present by traffic wardens.
At the same time we want to look much more seriously at the possibility of decriminalisation of an on-street parking scheme, which the police were previously reluctant to see introduced. They are now willing to withdraw their objections, and we propose to carry out a feasibility study on how decriminalisation might be introduced.
We are working with the police to improve the operation of the present arrangements; and we are looking at the medium to long-term effects of decriminalisation. That will, of course, require legislation in the Assembly.
The Chairperson: In paragraph 6, the Audit Office estimated that you could be losing as much as £300,000 annually through unpaid parking charges. In 1999-2000 that £300,000 would have boosted your income by 24%. What have you done since the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report to recoup that lost income from on-street parking?
Mr Spence: The figure of £300,000 is open to debate. It was an opportunity for income that was lost; some of it would have been offset by income to the Court Service from fixed penalty tickets for offences.
The Chairperson: Was that figure not agreed with the Audit Office?
Mr Spence: Yes, that is the calculation that was agreed, but it was open to different interpretations.
Mr Fraser: For many years we have had problems enforcing this scheme, and the publication of the report has helped us to move it forward. The £300,000 quoted in the report is a computation based on a number of offences identified in a survey that Roads Service commissioned consultants to undertake. The £300,000 is not an exact calculation.
For example, in a well-run scheme the beats in a central shopping area would be checked once every hour and those in a non-retail part of the central area once every two hours. In the survey that we commissioned we sought to generate as much information as possible, and some of the beats in, say, Shaftesbury Square were surveyed every 15 minutes. In practice, the 2,444 theoretical offences would not have been picked up even in the best-run schemes. If each of 12 wardens wrote a ticket every 10 minutes, they could issue a total of 720 tickets in a day. That is what Mr Spence meant by the actual figure, but it was a lost opportunity for income.
The Chairperson: In paragraph 30 I see that the Audit Office found a high number of reported ticket machine faults. Paragraph 32 states that Roads Service has introduced a new system that is designed to provide a full assessment of the maintenance contractors' performance. How long has your contract with the maintenance firm been in place? Why did you not have a proper monitoring system from the start?
Mr Fraser: The terms of the contract have not changed since the scheme was implemented. The contract asks that a fault reported before lunchtime be repaired the same day. A fault reported after lunchtime will be repaired within one working day. A machine that cannot be repaired on site will be replaced within two working days.
There was proper criticism of the record keeping of machines' performance. Since the report's publication we have put a system in place which enables us to monitor the performance of individual machines, if that is appropriate. I am now satisfied that an adequate system is in place for that to happen.
The Chairperson: Are you satisfied with the results of your monitoring system?
Mr Fraser: Yes. I am satisfied that we can now produce appropriate records for any particular time, and that they will show the repair regime that took place. It must be remembered that many of the faults are not caused by wear and tear on the machines; they are caused by vandalism. Therefore there is not necessarily a direct link to the record system with regard to the number of faults.
Mr Carrick: Paragraph 21 appears to suggest that there was a deficiency in the monitoring of records and accounts, and a particular weakness in the areas of accountability and seeking value for money. Paragraph 21 states that you paid the RUC £240,655 in the year 1999-2000. The report goes on to explain that this includes charges for duties which were carried out by wardens and which have nothing to do with on-street parking; and that it represents payment for only eight wardens, even though up to 20 of them work on the scheme. On-street parking has been operating since 1987, so why did no one in the Department question what they were being asked to pay, and why was a system not put in place to assess exactly what you should have paid?
Mr Spence: We were being undercharged by the RUC and were in no hurry to pay them extra money.
We did not have access to proper information from the RUC about the duties that they were providing. We have been making strenuous efforts over a number of years, and over 20 pieces of correspondence were sent to the RUC seeking information. We did not have enough detailed information to embark on further negotiations about these charges, and it was against a background of recognising that we were being undercharged. We did not rush to spend more money unless we were asked to.
Mr Fraser: There was great frustration in the then Belfast division of Roads Service about getting proper information out of the Police Authority or the RUC. For more than a year our correspondence remained unanswered. The warden service is undermanned and undermanaged. We commissioned the consultants to get to the bottom of the matter and to benchmark good practice.
Costs caused us extreme frustration for several years. However, it must be remembered that we were not dealing with a civilian organisation, and therefore the management controls and arrangements that one expects to find in a civilian organisation were absent.
Mr Carrick: That is difficult to accept. The RUC may not be a civilian organisation, but the warden service is and one would have expected to find stricter controls and tighter systems in it than in the RUC. Has that been your experience since the inception of the service in 1987? At least you had sufficient information to conclude that you were underpaying for the service.
Mr Fraser: Yes, but you must also remember that we are dealing with a monopoly. No alternative enforcement regime was available to us, and we therefore had to continue to attempt to get appropriate information from the Police Authority. The Police Authority originally dealt with the control of wardens, and responsibility for them moved to the branch of the RUC that dealt with civilian matters. We had difficulty getting appropriate information, including information on costings and on how many wardens were on the scheme.
Mr Carrick: That is unacceptable in the context of public accountability.
Mr Fraser: It is.
Mr Dallat: Judging by the number of sick days that they take off, a traffic warden's lot is not a happy one. You must be concerned that there is a lack of staff motivation, or that they think the job is boring or unrewarding. However, you would probably tell me that that is the responsibility of the RUC and not of Roads Service.
Have you looked at alternatives to the ticket machines? I recently used a ticket machine in the centre of Belfast and was amazed that it worked. We are living in a society where, unfortunately, machines are frequently damaged. Alternatives are in use in other cities; have you looked at those?
Mr Spence: Absenteeism among traffic wardens is a concern. It cannot be the most pleasant job to do - not many people say "thank you". Stronger management of traffic wardens was needed. The identification of significant sick leave, how that sick leave was covered, and the amount of overtime involved were part of the management weaknesses in our arrangements with the RUC. We hope that those can be strengthened through the service level agreement that Roads Service hopes to negotiate with them.
According to information from February 2000 on the machines in Belfast only 8% were out of order. That is not bad, considering the amount of vandalism that we have to deal with. There is usually a functioning machine near the broken machine, and the damaged machine would have directed one by arrows to the nearest available machine.
My understanding is that our Belfast system is now the preferred one. The systems that have been tried in other cities would be difficult to operate in Belfast. They involve selling vouchers in shops, but in Belfast there are not many shops behind the City Hall. Such a system might be more difficult for traffic wardens to police. Most people find the park-and-display arrangements easy to understand and to operate. Our difficulty has been ineffective policing.
Mr Fraser: The machines are old and all of them have been in place since 1987; only a few have been replaced. We are now on course to replace over 40 in the coming year.
Vouchers, decrementing cards and other measures have been considered, but towns in England which originally introduced vouchers now tend to favour pay-and-display machines. This is the preferred method in most UK towns and cities. Even Bath, which pioneered vouchers, is moving to pay-and-display. The technology moves on. Modern technology involves electronic decrementing cards which can be seen through one's windscreen. They have an inbuilt initial value of £10 or £50. The driver switches them on, places them on the dashboard where they can be read by the wardens, and they automatically use up their value. This can even happen more quickly during certain times of the day. We are not aware of anywhere in the UK using these devices at present.
The machines that we will be purchasing will have the capability of electronic card reading - probably a type of smart card. The problem is that the banks, for example, do not like people using credit cards in parking machines because they do not like 80p transactions - it costs them money. The tendency is to move towards a type of smart card which might include parking and public transport fares. A number of facilities could be incorporated into one card. Our new machines will have this facility.
Mr Dallat: Has any serious thought been given to devolving this responsibility to local councils, as they already have responsibility for some car parks, to ensure a coherent means of payment throughout Northern Ireland? If you were to offload that responsibility, you could concentrate more on all those neglected roads.
The Chairperson: I must say before you answer, Mr Spence, that that is a political decision for the Assembly.
Mr Dallat: It is purely in the interests of saving money.
Mr Spence: We are doing a feasibility study on how we might decriminalise the management of this, and one of the options would be local authorities acting as our agents. It could be considered as part of the feasibility study. It is a political judgement because it would require new legislation.
Mr Close: If I were awarding marks, you would be getting fewer marks for the second report, so far, than for the first. Paragraphs 24 to 26 show that the traffic warden service is not cost-effective. That would not be an overstatement. What strikes me - and I would like to get to the bottom of this - is that this service has been operating since 1987, and that the Department is effectively buying a service. It seems from the responses that I have heard so far that you do not really know what you are paying for. That would be fine if it were your own money, Gentlemen, but taxpayers' money is being used to pay for this service. I am told that it was £240,655 in the year 1999-2000. That is not a good way to use taxpayers' money.
We dealt with scarce resources in the first part of our meeting. These resources are scarce whether one is paying to patch a road or paying for the traffic warden service when one cannot be sure what one is buying. There is a sickness absence level of 26 days per individual, and you say that that is a management problem. But you know the saying "He who pays the piper calls the tune".
Why are we only now hearing about service level agreements? You said that you hoped to negotiate a service level agreement with them. You "hoped to" - you should have done it five years ago, because the service is so bad. The overtime system is crazy: it regards Saturday as overtime for parking and traffic wardens. About £50,000 to £60,000 is paid on overtime alone.
The total overtime bill is over £150,000 - 70% of the wages cost is overtime. You say that that is a management problem; that the Department is buying the service. However, it is buying it with taxpayers' money, and accountability lies fairly and squarely with the Department and its accounting officer. I do not think that the public is getting good value for money. Comments?
Mr Spence: Paragraph 4 of the Audit Office report says that the scheme is cost-effective and generates significant income. You are right that it is not as cost-effective as it should be, but the statute requires us to work with the RUC to deliver this service.
We have had considerable difficulty in getting basic information from the RUC about how the service is run. We see the same serious weaknesses in its management as you do. We were also conscious that we were not being charged the full price of the service by the RUC. In a sense, that makes it even more cost-effective.
We did not have a service level agreement earlier because it takes two parties to sign one. We were prepared to sign up, but for its own reasons the RUC was not able to enter into serious negotiations with us on the matter. I cannot answer for the RUC.
Mr Close: You are making a rod for your back. You manage the funds - that is what I am getting at. It is all very well to say "sorry, this is a matter for the RUC",but I must say to you on behalf of taxpayers "sorry, you are paying for it with taxpayers' money, that makes you accountable". Your attitude has been "it is not our fault". Like Pilate, you wash your hands.
Mr Spence: No, no, quite the opposite. For years we have been pressing the RUC for more information and for discussions on these matters. Their response has been very slow. Obviously, they had other things to concern them in that period. It is not through any negligence on our part that these things have not been improved. We have been pressing very hard.
We are constrained by the legislation, and we cannot have any other arrangements unless we change the law. Parliament imposed the responsibility on the RUC to employ traffic wardens to manage this system. We may need to change the law. We intend, once we have carried out a further study on decriminalisation, if appropriate, to bring forward legislation in the Assembly to look at it.
Mr Close: What representations have you made, and to whom, since 1987 about the bad service that you have been getting? Has it been drawn to a Minister's attention?
Mr Fraser: No. However, things started to move when I wrote to the Chief Executive of the Police Authority to try and get some response and rationale into the negotiations. However, it was never specifically brought to the attention of Ministers.
Mr Close: That gives a certain amount of credibility to my perhaps slightly exaggerated phrase that you are prepared, like Pilate, to wash your hands and say that is somebody else's responsibility.
Mr Spence: No. We took the initiative in trying to identify more clearly the weaknesses in these arrangements. We engaged consultants and we raised our concerns with the Audit Office. It was partly at our prompting that the Audit Office carried out this study, because we had become frustrated at our inability to get action from the RUC.
Mr Close: Therefore, it was at your prompting that the Audit Office made this report.
Mr Dowdall: That is correct. This is a fairly rare case of the Department asking us to look at an issue.
Mr Close: I congratulate you on that initiative.
Mr Beggs: Paragraph 37 on page 39 tells us that at the time of the Comptroller and Auditor General's investigation the maximum penalty for illegal parking had increased by only 67% since 1987, while car parking charges had increased by almost 300% in the same period. Do you accept that there was no suitable deterrent because you did not at least monitor the costs of parking?
Mr Fraser: I accept the point, but Roads Service is a relatively minor player in that. The process of reviewing penalties involves consideration of other traffic offences including obligatory, endorsable offences. These are linked.
Mr Beggs: Do you accept that there are public safety issues involved when cars are illegally parked half on the pavement and half on the road, or on roads where they should not be parked? That affects drivers' vision on the approaches to junctions, for example. Do you not accept the importance of ensuring that there is an incentive to public safety?
Mr Fraser: I do not accept that there is a safety issue. If an adequate, reliable enforcement regime were in place, the amount of the fixed penalty ticket would not perhaps be the biggest factor. Since 1 March 2001 the £20 has risen to £30. That rises to £45 if the fine is not paid within 42 days.
Mr Beggs: You said that the amount was not the major factor, and from what I have heard, I accept that. The report tells us that, apart from being fined a very small amount, in some places only 3% of offenders have been fined. The fine is small and the probability of being detected is low. I can therefore accept that a small fine is not the most important aspect, but I disagree that illegal parking has no public safety implications. I have seen people parking in places where they obstruct drivers' vision and endanger the public. The Department should take a more serious approach to that.
The increase to £30 is welcome, but why was it not increased to £40 in line with the rest of the United Kingdom?
Mr Fraser: As I said, we are not a major player in this.
Mr Beggs: Who is?
Mr Fraser: The players include the police, the Court Service, Transport Division, and Roads Service. The endorsable offences also tie in.
Mr Beggs: Who, if anybody, has been pressing for an increase in the fine?
Mr Fraser: I cannot answer that at this stage. We would need to research to find out who took the lead, but it was not Roads Service.
Mr Beggs: Can you please research that and come back to us?
When someone is fined for illegal parking there is a cost associated with writing and processing the ticket and in taking it through the Court Service. What is the administrative cost of imposing a fine? Is the current fine appropriate, given the administrative costs?
Mr Fraser: Processing fees and charges should be self-supporting or at least resource-neutral. That is a consideration in setting charges.
Mr Beggs: Is it resource-neutral?
Mr Fraser: We do not have the direct information on the processing of fixed penalty tickets. We are not in control of that. The wardens give their administrative costs in the report.
Mr Beggs: Do you accept that there is a need to find that information and to introduce new technology to increase the speed with which the whole system can be administered? For example, a hand-held portable computer of some sort could be used. Do you agree with that?
Mr Fraser: Yes. We sought to introduce the police to hand-held computers in the early 1980s.
Mr Chairperson: I remind you that you have promised to let us have the information that Mr Beggs asked for.
The Committee recognises that nobody is keen on paying parking fees for on-street parking. It is, however, essential that we get a system that is fair and that works. We should make sure that that happens before it is extended to other parts of the Province. Thank you very much for your evidence today.
Mr Spence, I understand that you are soon to retire. The Committee and I wish you all the best in your retirement.
You have all been issued with a press release on our last report, which we need to get passed today. It concerns the Irish Sport Horse Genetic Testing Unit and the National Agriculture Support Frauds. Mr Carrick, can you propose that we accept that? The meeting is now closed.
PROVISION OF ADDITIONAL INFORMATION BY MR RONNIE SPENCE, ACCOUNTING OFFICER OF THE DEPARTMENT FOR REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT, FOLLOWING EVIDENCE SESSION OF 21 MARCH 2001
In the course of hearing evidence at the session on 21 March the Committee requested supplementary information on three matters.
On the Structural Maintenance of Roads the Committee asked whether there had been occasions when money had been transferred from the maintenance of roads to any other section within the Department. Money allocated for the maintenance of roads has been used for that purpose with the exception that for the year 2000/01, £645K of additional money provided late in the year for structural maintenance could not be spent within the financial year. This was surrendered to DFP but returned to the Department to meet a pressure elsewhere.
The Committee also asked about reductions in administrative staff within Roads Service. The following figures are available. Industrial figures are shown for comparison.
In the NICS, as a whole, the non-industrial reduction over the same period was just 0.8% (from 27979 in 1994 to 27748 in 2000). Equivalent figures on the industrial side are not currently available.
At the hearing on the Management of On-Street Parking the Committee asked where the responsibility lay for determining fixed penalty charges for parking offences. The levels of fixed penalty for motoring offences in Northern Ireland are set by way of regulations made by the Minister of the Environment. The regulations are subject to negative resolution of the Assembly.
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