Go-ahead for work to start on £1billion highways contracts

One of the potholes in King's Way, Ipswich

Highways maintenance contracts could cost Suffolk County Council £1bn - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown/Archant

Agreement has been given for three new highways maintenance contracts with a spend of up to £1billion in the next 20 years in Suffolk to be pursued.

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday afternoon unanimously agreed to begin work on developing a hybrid model of highways maintenance when the current Kier contract ends in September 2023, which will see a main provider carry out the majority of work, and two smaller specialist contracts for street lighting and traffic signals.

Highways chiefs said that model would deliver most of the benefits of a single provider – currently used in Suffolk – such as bulk-buying powers and economies of scale, while allowing for flexibility in two areas where digital technology upgrades are likely to be prevalent.

Authorisation by cabinet means that around £2million can be spent on drawing up the contracts and the requirements within them, which will then be put out to tender.

Suffolk County Council cabinet member for waste, Paul West, said the booking system had proved successful for the rubbish...

Cabinet member Paul West - Credit: Rachel Edge

Paul West, Conservative cabinet member for operational highways, said: “On balance, it’s considered by officers that a single main maintenance contract for the majority of services provides the ability to have strength in the marketplace whilst maintaining a flexible approach in respect of services that particularly lend themselves to a specialist contractor and perhaps will have technology changes to the way things are done in the years ahead.”

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He added: “This is very much the start of the process with elected members to engage in the run up to October 1, 2023.”

Mr West voiced intentions for other benefits to the new contract, such as improved communication with homes when roadworks will take place in their streets, work opportunities through apprenticeships and the Kickstart scheme; and built-in environment measures to deliver on carbon reduction plans by 2030.

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The main contract is planned for a 10-year period from October 2023, with options for two further five year periods beyond that. Expected spend in that contract time is likely to be between £800million and £1bn.

Keith Welham, transport spokesman with the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group, has asked for the new contract to help iron out problems with councillors using their locality budgets to spend directly on schemes in their areas.

He added: “Why are the county council aiming to secure a contract which relies on one company to carry out all the highways work with insufficient control retained by council engineers?

“It may be the cheapest option on paper,  but our residents would benefit from services such as design and programming being carried out by our own staff.

“If we are looking for best value and reducing the impact on our planet, much of the work should be brought back in house.”

Sandy Martin, deputy leader of the Labour group, said that forming an arms length management organisation would “give best strategic control over the service” and raised concerns that it had been rejected as the best option because of a lack of in-house experience.

He added: “Our constituents are furious with the lack of timely interventions in both maintenance and safety measures.

“Even after the order has been made for them to be filled, potholes have taken up to a further six months to fill.  Simple road safety measures such as yellow lines have taken years and thousands of pounds to put in place. For example a street light in Ipswich was registered as faulty 446 days ago. Target time to repair is 10 days, and yet the county council still has no idea when it will be repaired and the contractor has no obligation to say.”

Cabinet approval means work can now begin on forming contracts for those three areas, with a formal board being established to oversee that process.

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