Suffolk highways contract slammed as 'dysfunctional' after surge in complaints
PUBLISHED: 06:55 22 September 2016 | UPDATED: 08:22 22 September 2016
Suffolk's multi-million pound highways contract has been branded "dysfunctional" after a surge in complaints from angry motorists.
Highways teams saw a 51% increase in complaints last year because of subcontractors working too slowly, a new county council report has claimed.
The £200million highways contract, awarded to Kier Group in October 2013, was intended to provide more efficient and affordable services.
However the council report, produced for next Wednesday’s audit committee, said the “slow rate” at which Kier and its subcontractors carried out the work had led to the increased complaints.
“There was an increasing number of complaints relating to attitude and conduct of staff, seemingly linked to a combination of frustration at the duration of works and often very lengthy diversion routes,” it said.
The report added there had been too much focus on “numbers” rather than the service and its customers.
John Field, vice-chairman of the council’s scrutinee committee, which has also looked into the contract, said “it just doesn’t seem to have worked”.
“There’s always a turbulent period when you go from one organisation to another but this seems to have come totally off the rails,” he added.
“It’s been a dogma-driven change, which really hasn’t paid off”.
Mr Field said the public-private partnership was “dysfunctional” with extra “bureaucracy” and Kier employees duplicating some of the work of council officers. He said the changeover has seen council officers having to reapply for their roles under Kier, which is “always very disturbing for staff”.
Labour’s transport spokesman Sandra Gage said since the contract was introduced, Kier had failed to meet 50% of its performance targets and disputes between the two organisations had cost £1.9m to resolve.
“Since Kier took over the maintenance of our roads, there has been an appalling response to pubic concerns, poor communication with local residents and councillors on what and when any road repairs will take place, and drop in repair standards,” she added.
SCC and Kier say a new “transformation programme” will create “integrated teams” to allow for faster decision making and quicker completion of work.
Meanwhile, parish councils say they have been left contending with unfilled pothole and dangerously overgrown roadside verges.
Bob Perrett, highways liaison officer at Middleton Parish Council, said the road to the village primary school had been left in a “grievous state” and the community was getting “fairly desperate”.
“It seems to us that we are paying our council tax for nothing,” he added.
Grass in Long Melford was said to have become so long that it “dwarfed the millstone” on the entrance to the village.
John Nunn, who represents the village at Babergh District Council, said he had raised concerns with highways teams, and found officers were “very frustrated” about work not getting done. “I think basically, the problem boils down to Kier,” he added.
Richard Kemp, who is the village’s county councillor, said the contract had been “little short of a disaster”.
“It’s a very poor response from Kier and I think we should be having an in-depth examination of where this has gone wrong,” he added.
“The ones I feel awfully sorry for are the highways officers at the council because they’re the ones bearing the brunt of the blame”.
It is understood that at least one of the main subcontractors, which performed work for Kier, has ended its role due to safety concerns over the way verge clearances were carried out. The company, which did not want to comment on the issue, provided around a third of the machinery used across the county, leaving a significant shortfall when it left the contract.
At Framlingham Town Council’s September meeting, resident Kevin Coe asked county councillor Stephen Burroughes why SCC “are using a highways company from Berkshire rather than Kier”.
Mr Burroughes said there had been “various rumours” including that “some contractors had been dismissed on the spot” but they were not true.
James Finch, who is responsible for highways at the county council, speaking after the meeting, said: “Unfortunately it sounds like on this occasion a number of people made assumptions without necessarily being in possession of all the facts.” He said highways used several sub-contractors and managed all work to ensure it is carried out to a high specification.
Delays to work this summer have been chiefly blamed by the council on “unprecedented levels of rain”.
Mr Finch said extra resources had been brought in to undertake additional works to regain lost time and the new “transformation programme” would provide a more cost effective service.
“These co-located teams will operate from offices in the east, west and centre of the county and will be better placed to positively respond to the concerns from the local community,” he added.
“These new ‘service delivery centres’ will also provide a local point of contact for parish and town councils, as well as borough, district and county councillors.
“The key driver behind these changes is to maintain and improve Suffolk’s highways as effectively as possible as well as respond to community needs efficiently.”
The appointment of Mark Stevens, as assistant director, has been welcomed as a means to turn around the department.
John Goodwin, one of Felixstowe’s county councillors, said the situation had been “dire” but Mr Stevens was trying to resolve it.
The previous portfolio-holder for highways, Graham Newman, also said he was “confident Mr Stevens would make the changes that are needed”.
Scrutiny committee will be looking at the highways contract in November, when Mr Stevens, Mr Finch and representatives of Kier will be asked to explain how they are working towards creating a more integrated team.
Committee chairman Mary Evans said the contract had previously been “cumbersome” and “over prescriptive” and the council as a whole could benefit from taking a more “commercial approach” to how it awards contracts.
Kier said it had nothing further to add to Mr Finch’s response.
‘Decisions made locally are usually better decisions’
Senior Suffolk councillors have suggested local parishes could be better placed to carry out some highways tasks, such as verge clearances.
Stephen Burroughes, who is vice-chairman at the county council, made the comments after receiving repeated complaints from residents and parish councils within his Framlingham division.
With local knowledge, supported with extra funding, he said parish councils could take on some of the work currently carried out by the district or county teams.
However he stressed more major works – such as pothole repairs – would not be appropriate for parishes to take on, having been misinterpreted on the issue before.
“My thoughts were that there should be a conversation with parish council about taking responsibility for, and management of, their local road verge maintenance, as used to be the case some years ago,” he added.
“Decisions made locally are usually better decisions.”
Robert Whiting, who represents Rushmere and Kesgrave on the county council, agreed.
“Town and parish councils are best place to know about grass verges, raised hedges and suchlike,” he said.
“And they are the best places to initially make contact with local residents.”