New report reveals concerns about Northamptonshire Highways contract

Concerns have been raised about how Northamptonshire County Council runs and monitors its long-term highways contract and whether it is getting value for money from the arrangement.

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 1:34 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 1:36 pm
KierWSP has held the Northamptonshire Highways contract since 2008.

A report published by the council’s scrutiny committee has found there are significant issues with how the soon-to-be abolished authority has kept an eye on the circa £50m annual contract, with the investigation finding that contractor KierWSP ‘prioritised and quality assured’ its own work for the council.

This was in part due to the authority not having enough staff to keep an eye on how well the contractor was fulfilling its requirements.

The report also found cuts made to the highway’s budget due to the recent financial problems of the council have ‘created a particularly challenging environment.’

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KierWSP’s contract with NCC involves the maintaining the county’s road network, road safety and gully cleansing.

The contract has been running under the Northamptonshire Highways brand since 2008 and has been extended twice in that time without going to tender on the open market.

The scrutiny working group, which was led by Cllr Jonathan Ekins, is now recommending the authority makes a series of changes to ensure the contract is better managed and provides greater results.

It also recommends the authority prioritises and protects the highways budget.

This year NCC is making £41m of savings, with more than £5m coming from the place directorate which includes the highways budget.

The report said: “The key conclusion from the scrutiny review is that Northamptonshire County Council should strengthen its existing arrangements for contract monitoring and quality assurance in relation to highway works.

“This is a straightforward but crucial point.

“The council must have sufficient capacity to plan and check the services provided on its behalf to be confident that it is using public money well.”

It continues: “There was general consensus from the working group, based on the evidence obtained and resulting discussions, that significant improvements to the current contract arrangements could be made to enable services to be delivered as efficiently and effectively as members would expect.

“The working group raised concerns about the impact of NCC having a lack of sufficient expert capacity to monitor the operation of the Highway Services Contract and the service provider’s performance against key targets.

“The working group considered that the existing contract seemed to be operating in a way that effectively enabled the service-provider to prioritise and quality assure its own work to a significant extent.

This raised questions about NCC’s ability to secure the best value from the contract, as well as potential secondary risks such as legal or insurance claims (where appropriate) that might arise from highway issues.

In this context the working group also noted that NCC was liable for insurance costs from highway claims under the existing contract: it encouraged consideration of whether this was the best approach to take in future.

Ultimately, NCC needed to operate arrangements that gave it confidence that work under the contract was being done to the right standards and enabled it to take action to secure this if it was not the case.”

The poor state of parts of the county’s roads has alarmed many residents over recent years.

In 2018 the council paid out £195,000 to just under 500 motorists whose vehicles had been damaged by potholes.

The report will be discussed by the council’s scrutiny committee next Wednesday (Jan 29) at it’s One Angel Square Northampton headquarters.