The light-touch approach to the way Northamptonshire County Council monitored its £50m annual highways contract was laid bare yesterday.
A report by the council’s scrutiny committee found that changes need to be made to the way the council is monitoring and investigating the work carried out by long-term contractor KierWSP.
A number of councillors expressed their concerns at the level of service the council has been receiving over the years, pointing to a high number of successful insurance claims by road users who have received money from the council for damage to their vehicles.
Chair of the scrutiny working group that looked into the service Cllr Jonathan Ekins said the main finding was that there was an ‘accountability issue’.
He did say that in recent months improvements had been made and now NCC staff were going out regularly and doing random spot checks to ensure the work has been done by the contractor to the required standard.
Scrutiny member Cllr Graham Lawman said the committee had been assured that improvements had now been made but it was important to recognise how the contract had been run for a number of years.
He said “It felt like the council had got itself into a place where Kier were not just judge and jury, but they were also prosecution and defence.
“It is very important that the recommendations in this report about increased scrutiny of the contract are under way. Being able to ensure we get value for money is the heart of evething we have done.”
Liberal Democract councillor Chris Stanbra said lessons needed to be learned.
He said: “If there is anything that is taken forward out of this review I would hope it is that we are paying millions and millions of pounds to a contractor each year to maintain our roads then we need to ensure sure they are maintaining the road properly and we need to have the staff in place to do that.
“On the insurance costs issue. We have put in place what we think is a highways contract that will protect us from insurance claims because we have engaged a contractor who will maintain roads to certain standards. If that happens we should be able to defend any insurance claims. Clearly that isn’t happening because insurance claims are being paid out.
“Not only that but we have opted to bear the costs of those insurance claims which I find surprising. You might think it ought to be the contractor who bears the cost of those insurance claims.”
Labour Cllr Julie Brookfield also was disappointed at the council’s insurance record.
She said: “It can never ever be good value for money for a council to be paying out more on insurance claims than it should because of the state of its roads. I am so disappointed that Northamptonshire is up there in the top 10. That is not a league we want to be high up in.”
In 2018 the council paid out £195,000 to just under 500 motorists whose vehicles had been damaged by potholes.
Resident Dave Gaster, who has been keeping a close eye on the contract, spoke at the meeting.
He said information he had seen under freedom of information requests said the authority had a £17m backlog on highway repairs and he now thinks that backlog is rising to £30m a year, or £600,000 a week.
The figures were not confirmed, as neither the portfolio holder Cllr Jason Smithers or the director of highways Neil Taylor were present at the meeting. KierWSP was also not in attendance. However, the authority’s two government appointed commissioners Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts joined the meeting to listen.
According to the proactis online contract register the value of the contract since awarded in March 2008 and until March this year has been £457m.
Cllr Ekins said during the course of the scrutiny committee’s work accusations were made about the contract delivery which may have legal implications but as these were not in the remit of the scrutiny working party’s brief they have been passed on to the council’s leaders and auditors.
Recommendations made in the report including the highways contractor using new technology such as thermal patching to repair roads and that a key priority should be strengthening how the council monitors the contract.
The report will now go forward to the cabinet who will decide whether to take up the recommendations from the committee.
Kier WSP has been contacted for comment.