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Devon Highways

01 Sep 2022 09:00

Devon Highways is a law unto itself and it needs to change. It is spending vast sums of public money with very little consultation, accountability or scrutiny. There is something seriously wrong with how this aspect of our County Council operates.

Very soon after getting elected I started getting complaints about the zebra-crossing in Harbertonford. When I looked into the history it appeared that the Parish Council had been trying to get something done for over 10 years.

So being newly elected, fresh-faced and naive I contacted Devon Highways (DH) via our Neighbourhood Highways Officer expecting to be able to open a dialogue. I got precisely nowhere. I was told there was nothing to be done. I was also told that I should go through my County Councillor as this was a county matter or through the local Parish Council clerk.

As a District Councillor I believe I have been elected to represent the interests of my ward in all its manifestations. It is not in the gift of DH's un-elected officers, of any rank, to decree that they will not talk to certain elected representatives of the community they serve.

It was only when I produced the document A381 Crossing open_in_new that I got a professional response. And I subsequently had a very good and fruitful dialogue with a DH engineer and others. There are undoubtedly some very good people within DH. However, there are some very serious organisational issues as well.

In 2020 DH decided, without consultation with local representatives, to spend £100,000 (FoI request) on resurfacing a mile of back-lane which gets a couple of cars a day. Just a mile away was a broken radar activated speed-limit warning sign on a road that has 6,000 vehicles a day trundling towards it. This sign has now been broken for ages and remains broken to this day. This sign was put there to mitigate the problems with the zebra-crossing, so pretty important. Also, this £100k will have come from the "routine maintenance" budget of £3.1M (DCC Budget Book 21/22) and so appears to represent a massive 3% spent out of that budget!

The logic of how DH prioritises its work is impenetrable, and most importantly it is not a result of consultation with the local Parish Council, the County Councillor or god forbid, the local District Councillor.

Also, I have yet to attend a parish council that has not noted how poor the workmanship is. The same pot-hole gets refilled on a regular basis because the job is never done properly. The amount of wasted time and money, not to say public inconvenience, is immense. Does DH keep records of how often the same pot-hole gets attended to I wonder? It certainly should.

Some time ago, at a meeting at Follaton House with colleagues, I asked if I was alone in finding Devon Highways an appallingly difficult organisation to deal with. Interestingly, everyone there agreed that there is something deeply amiss with the culture within Devon Highways.

Just recently a sign was put up to say an important road was to be closed for 3 weeks. People were quite understandably concerned. There had been no communication with anybody as to why this was happening. So began the latest saga of arrogant dismissal:

  • I sent a friendly inquiry to our Neighbourhood Highways Officer (NHO) asking what this was all about. No reply.
  • I sent a further message. No reply... just a referral to a general enquiry process that would answer by a date that was well after when the road would be closed. So entirely unhelpful!
  • I wrote to the Head of Highways. No reply.
  • I wrote to the Chief Executive. No reply... but the Head of Highways was clearly told to respond to me as I then got a reply from her, but it was just the usual dismissive nonsense. She claimed there were 35,000 works and her Neighbourhood Highways Officer could not possibly know about everything that was happening in his area.
  • I replied suggesting he look up the information on the computer system that DH must have to manage these works. Probably a 30 second job, especially as I had sent the necessary site reference in my very first email. Copy and paste and reply to my email. Job done. As ever ... no reply.
  • In the end, I filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the information and to ask what is the role of a Neighbourhood Highways Officer, and guess what... I received no acknowledgement until I chased.

I finally received an answer to my FoI request, which included the job description of a Neighbourhood Highways Officer (the full text is here: NHO Job Description open_in_new). It states that the job is:

To understand local issues and provide local advice and information on highway and traffic management. By:-

  • Supporting, consulting and advising local elected Members on highway and traffic management issues, works and programmes;
  • Providing regular liaison with Town and Parish Councils and community groups, informing them of planned work programmes and identifying local community priorities;
  • Consulting on, determining and advising on local priorities for highway and traffic management, providing input to planned work programmes, and commissioning local programmes and projects;
  • Providing high quality customer service, focussing on undertaking technical investigation and assessment of highway and traffic management enquiries and requests.

The Neighbourhood Officers role is to liaise between stakeholders and parties with an interest in the highway network:

  • Councillors,
  • district and parish councils,
  • local residents,
  • ...

Sadly, I have never met or spoken with our NHO. I have never ever been consulted by our NHO on any highways issue in my ward. No Parish Council in my ward has ever been consulted or involved in setting priorities. And, when I occasionally have had cause to ask for information or help I have been treated like I had dared to enter the sacred realm and was intent on stealing the secret of the great golden pot-hole.

Devon Highways is undoubtedly full of highly qualified, dedicated and hard working officers, and when I have managed to get past the dragons, they have been hugely helpful and professional. The problem is one of culture and leadership, not personnel. There appears to be an insular and inward looking leadership team that are not being held to account, and regard the likes of me as an irritant. I also know that there are Neighbourhood Highways Officers that work well with their communities but it shouldn't be the lottery that it clearly is.

There needs to proper and continuous engagement with Town and Parish Councillors, and District Councillors as well as County Councillors in the setting of priorities and the scheduling of works. If the job description of a Neighbourhood Highways Officer was discharged there wouldn't be a problem. It is simply poor leadership that allows this not to be the case. It is not a resources issue as is so often claimed. The likelihood is that consulting and involving communities would result in huge savings and a more coherent targeted priorities.

I have had long experience of dealing with DH going back decades. It is nearly always an exasperating experience. When involved in fighting an enormous mega-dairy of 1000+ cows in North Devon there was general outrage at the cursory and dismissive attitude to DH's response.

The professionalism and consistency of Devon Highways as a statutory consultee for planning leaves a great deal to be desired, a view that many beleaguered planning officers also hold.

Why is there this problem? Unfortunately, I need to get political to answer this question.

Devon County Council is the local Highways Authority and as such Devon Highways is part of DCC. Its officers should be held to account by the elected members of DCC, but this is not happening. The scrutiny by members is far from adequate and this seems to be typical of Tory controlled councils. The same applies in South Hams District Council. The Tory members appear to work on the lazy premise of 'why have a dog and bark yourself'. Members just defer to officers and quite frankly just don't do their job. In a situation like that, it is natural for officers to relax into the belief that they are the masters. But they are not, or they shouldn't be. When local government is running properly, members are the masters and they delegate powers to officers to implement their will. And they hold them to account to ensure they do. That is how local democracy should work, but it is dependent on the quality, determination and energy of elected members.

Life is made even easier for Tory members because they have to agree to being whipped. It is a party rule. So they do not really represent their ward or division, they represent their party. It is completely inappropriate in local government ... and one result is the Devon Highways we have, which I believe is off the leash and a law unto itself.

DH needs to change. If it doesn't change as a result of a recognition of the obvious need to engage with any and all locally elected community members, then change needs to be imposed by DCC elected members. They could if they had the will. They are in charge. But they won't, and sadly the DCC elections are not until 2025 ... so not long to go, and I hope DH is planning for change.