Chris Dyer, director of consultancy Yotta, writes on how councils can best balance their short and long term investments, while facing financial pressures in the current climate.
The government’s comprehensive National Infrastructure Strategy announced at the end of November, will provide extensive opportunities for local authorities, with billions pledged towards improvements in national infrastructure and focuses on areas such as highways and the environment. Despite increasing levels of national debt, it is encouraging that the government have recognised the need to invest in local roads. The challenge now, is to ensure local council leaders commit their support by ensuring the funding is ring fenced to highways and spent on implementing the best cost-effective plans.
Whilst the DfT have announced £1.125bn investment in local road infrastructure, there is no guarantee that all this funding actually ends up being spent here. Cash strapped local authorities are increasingly finding themselves with budget deficits and this funding will almost certainly be diluted to fund other priorities.
Especially in the current climate and the financial pressures that have come with it, local authorities need to balance short-term and long-term investments. When looking at highway investments, a delicate balancing act of keeping roads safe through immediate actions such as pothole filling must be completed while also looking ahead to how that piece of infrastructure needs to perform in the future as part of the investment strategy.
Data collected through inspections and surveys can underpin the effectiveness of systems and tools in advising local authorities on where best to make the right investments. By implementing an asset management approach, which is endorsed by the Department for Transport (DfT), local authorities should be working with their asset management technology partners to build their case to secure this ‘non ring-fenced’ budget from their local Capital Board. In these continually hard times, the need for evidence-based business cases for infrastructure investment could not be more important.
Council members have an extremely hard job to determine capital budget allocation across the authority from adult social care to children’s services to highway and property infrastructure. With public health at the centre of attention, it will be easy to divert funding away from local infrastructure improvement and maintenance for this more pressing need. A strong evidence-based case to demonstrate the impact of funding on infrastructure performance such as steady state and reduced budget performance will be essential to help Local Members make clear informed decisions about funding allocation.
Balances within any business case should be references to long-term carbon reduction goals including catering from electric and autonomous vehicles. High quality roads are key in supporting the future of transport and initiatives such as autonomous vehicles, active travel and the challenges with climate change.
With the Covid-19 pandemic placing unprecedented pressure on councils and local authorities to spend money in the right way, access to the right blend of industry expertise and technology will help build a strong evidence-based business case and provide a targeted strategy moving forward to ensure the infrastructure can support the economic recovery of the country.