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Liberal Democrats Criticise Herts Conservatives' Plans to Extend Highways Contract for another 5 Years

Steam RollerThe Liberal Democrat Opposition councillors at County Hall have been shocked and angered to hear that HCC are intending to extend the contracts of much-criticised highways contractors Ringway for a further 5 years.

Councillors were told in a short email on Monday, that the final decision would be made in November.

"This was a bolt out of the blue," said Opposition Leader, Lib Dem Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst. "Over the past 6 years there has been considerable criticism and many justified complaints from residents and councillors about the poor state of our roads and pavements. Despite the poor performance of the highways contractor it seems that the Tory councillors and the county council officers are prepared simply to grant Ringway a further 5 year contract.

"I was surprised get a very short email giving the reasoning of 'ongoing service evolution and service improvements'.

Residents haven't seen any of these improvements so far. There are no plans even to test the market, let alone a full tender, yet the Tories say they are in favour of using competition to drive down costs to the public!

"Being a leading critic of the poor performance of Ringway and the subcontractors week in week out has resulted in some improvements but things are still not right after 6 years. One has to question if this extension is the right choice. We need massive improvements in efficiency, communication and service delivery before the HCC looks at handing a Ringway a new contract. The Tories are in denial about the failings of the highways contract.

"The Lib Dems are not convinced that this decision will deliver the best deal for Hertfordshire's residents, nor that it is a wise way to spend over £30 million of council taxpayers' money each year."

Cllr Nick Hollinghurst from Tring added, "I don't believe that highway maintenance outsourcing schemes anywhere in the UK are doing well. There is now a lack of competition, especially for the basic maintenance. The "main contractors" routinely sub-contracting anything remotely complicated - and often to another company in their parent group. It's difficult to see where they bring added-value to the operations. Worst of all it seems to be a small number of companies dividing the highway contracts between them right across the land. They seem to have evolved into facades carrying out minor works and sub-contracting behind which are concealed slick PR operations for winning and retaining lucrative public contracts. Their real skills lie in gaming the contract details and the performance indicators to generate cash flow and profit for their multinational corporate parents.

A large proportion of larger works is contracted directly by the highway authority to specialist firms and this process - though far from perfect - works much better. Of course the issue here is that I and many councillors feel that contract management is in general neither rigourous nor frequent enough. This, we feel, applies equally to the work carried out by the so-called main contractors.

If local authority contract management was improved this would improve the efficiency and value for money of the larger works - and as for the minor works and maintenance then this, I believe, should be brought back in-house and subject to the same enhanced management."

This," he concluded, "would provide a leaner, meaner operation under effective management and control, but without the heavy costs of the "middle man" - and it would put a stop to the steady loss of expertise from councils that will soon put them completely at the "main contractors'" mercy."

Please note: steam rollers are not actually used by Ringway. The picture is just a metaphor for their slow and lumbering service.