Response to Highways Maintenance Question

In this post I am responding to the following message on social media. As the facebook rules prevent mention of party politics I have responded here because it is impossible to engage in a frank discussion of this issue with out referring to party politics.

Hi Pippa Heylings and Ros Hathorn, please can I have an update on the state of the paths in Homefield and Hereward – I flagged this up during the pandemic when looking after Homefield but nothing seems to have happened

There is no quick and short answer to this. So I will begin at the beginning. It is worth noting that whilst I cannot promise to make magic happen or to find £10,000s of funding I have tried really hard to communicate what is happening clearly by asking questions to the County Council and posting the answers in blog posts.  I am happy to meet people and talk in person and I am happy to keep on asking and can set up meetings. 

Another point to make is residents are quite right to raise these issues and raise them again and again it is often by fighting for things that change happens.

Anyway here’s the explanation as I see it for where we are in terms of highways and footpath maintenance. It’s long but the reason we’re in this position is because the situation is long and complicated.

In 2008 there was a financial crisis, money dried up.   After the 2010 general election the government had to start saving money and the era of financial austerity began.  Whilst Labour are quick to blame Conservatives and Lib Dems for this it is important to note that all 3 parties ran on this platform in 2010 and Alistair Darling, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer is on record as saying ‘we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher’.  This article reminds you of where we were in 2010, there was a black hole in the finances.

These financial savings took place at all levels of councils.  As the roads were in a relatively good state at that point these massive cuts to road maintenance were not immediately noticeable.   In 2022 the catastrophic toll this approach has taken on our roads is evident.  It is not an excuse for the quality of our roads but if you go to Hampshire or Edinburgh even crossing the border to Suffolk near Newmarket you will see roads in equally as poor a state of repair.

Now the story switches to the County Council.   Last year the Liberal Democrats took over leadership of the County Council working with Labour and Independents.  For the previous 4 years Conservatives had had control. Towards the end of their time in power and certainly in their last term they prioritised keeping council tax low over maintaining their roads and performing statutory services which were fit for purpose.  I think I have written elsewhere about how appalling my experience of looking after my mother towards the end of her life was under a Conservative administration.   Now the reality is that maintaining the highways network in Cambridgeshire costs a lot of money.   What we inherited as a new administration at the county council was a pothole ridden network of roads, reliant on periodic dollops of cash from central government when they thought an election was approaching.   The staff who operate Highways was no less pothole ridden with staffing gaps across the team and morale extremely low. Things have improved to an extent but it is naïve for anyone to suggest this will be resolved over night.  It takes time to fix fundamental problems like this.  In addition to this the County Council inherited a financial deficit of around £80million.  So there is no extra money to sort things out and savings have to be found somewhere.  

There are savings which can be made.  The £5 million capital bids fund which was a grant given out to community projects (sprucing up village halls) across the county on a first come first served basis largely to Conservative voting areas has been stopped.  Even after belt tightening the financial pressures don’t stop.  Adults and Health costs eat up the biggest part of the budget and the costs of Children and Young people are eye watering. The cost of a child in a private care home was reported this week as being £1 million per year, this is all money that has to be found by the County Council.   I don’t have to hand the precise figure for Cambridgeshire but every time the Children and Young People committee members talk about their costs everyone else is knocked for six about the eyewatering expense this area has to bear.

If you look at other blog posts here I have reported upon which roads and footpaths have been chosen for maintenance schemes this year. This lead to community debate which I then took back to the County Council.  I pushed back to the County council with concerns about how the decisions were made and specific issues about areas which had been missed including the Homefield and Hereward areas.  I then posted the detailed response I received from the County Council about how decisions were made and also that there would be a site visit.  I will push the County council for a date for that site visit.

Since coming to power Liberal Democrats have reversed the disastrous gully (drains) cleaning maintenance approach of the Conservatives. I do nevertheless cycle past blocked drains here every day of the week.  The County Council have cleaned over 18,000 drains and they will reach ours eventually but when you inherit a highways network in, in the Conservatives own words, a state of ‘managed decline’ you are not going to turn it around overnight.  Bearing in mind the perilous state of the finances we have inherited I can’t promise that the highways network will be resolved within the election term but things are being managed better, oversight has improved, job vacancies have been filled, contracts scrutinised and new maintenance regimes put in place.  

Whilst it’s always worth reporting things to the Parish Council unless they want to pay for footpaths themselves (you can always ask) all they do is then report it to the County Council.  It’s the same with the District Council.  Maintenance lies at the County Council but also at central government who routinely underfunds County Councils.  

Bus back better was the governments £1billion scheme to get people back on the buses, Cambridgeshire did not get a penny of funding despite being a large rural county. looking at the vast tranche of ‘red wall’ (newly elected Conservatives MPs and potentially vulnerable at the next election) seats that did get funding there is a credible political view that safe Conservative seats were ignored. Ie. MPs Lucy Frazer, Steve Barclay (cabinet member) Jonathan Djangoly and Antony Browne felt confident that they would be re-elected so did not demand any money for Cambridgeshire. 

If you write to Lucy Frazer she will refer road maintenance issues back to the County council but fundamentally if you want to know why the roads across the country are in such a state of disrepair you need to ask our MP Lucy Frazer because it is her government’s decisions and her party’s decisions which have brought us here. It is also her colleague County Councillor Steve Count who lead the Conservative County Council until May 2021 who allowed a black hole in County Council finances to grow and accepted a policy of ‘managed decline’ across the highways network of Cambridgeshire which is extremely hard to reverse.

I will not stop fighting for better highways maintenance here, I will not stop asking questions, I will meet with people but I am also not a miracle worker.

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