#64: The first thing elected Members knew about the highways consultant employed by Shropshire Council was via an email sent to all councillors and some service directors.

It was not marked Confidential nor did it come with a notice that circulation was in any way restricted, hence…

On 29 Jan 2020, at 14:44, Clive Wright wrote:

Dear Member

I want to inform you of changes I am making, with the support of the Portfolio Holder, Steve Davenport, in Highways with immediate effect. As you are all aware, we need to improve performance and delivery at pace. To achieve this the following actions have been taken:

1) We have appointed a consultant, Tom Blackburn-Maze, who will be with us until the end of June. Tom is providing advice on how to make crucial improvements based on his experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere. Tom will be providing advice to myself, Mark Barrow and the Highways team.

2) ******** has been asked to take on a different role.  He will continue to deal with front facing issues and add vital management capacity to the work of highways which is so critical to members, town and parish councils and the public.

3) ******** will continue as Interim Head of Highways and will manage the day to day operation of Highway repairs and maintenance.

4) Alun and Steve will act on the advice of Tom but will report to Mark Barrow or me in Mark’s absence (on leave for 2 weeks).

5) We are moving the Highways front of house into the Customer Service Centre. This will coincide with reconfiguring CONFIRM (the Highways computerised management system) to provide Members with up to date information on line. The Customer Contact Centre already successfully handles complex referrals such as, for example, children and/or adults requiring social care.

6) Robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. We have agreed an up scaling of Kier mobilisation and I expect to see a change over the next few weeks.

7) We will be working at faster pace focusing on areas of highest need over coming months. We will work to eliminate unproductive behaviour such as, for example, fixing one pothole whilst leaving the one next to it. Concentrating on areas will enable more work to be done faster and make it easier for us to supervise and ensure quality.

8) We will experiment with using local contractors as an alternative to using Kier. We can do this within the terms of our contract with Kier. This will provide evidence of the best way to proceed going forwards.

9) I expect highways repair costs to increase and these costs are being projected. We also anticipate that the Government will again make available additional ‘Pothole Funding’, though this is not yet confirmed.

10) We will reduce the rate of temporary repairs with an initial target of less than 5%.

11) We will hold a Members workshop at the end of February to update all Members.

12) The Portfolio Holder has requested that Scrutiny take a look at Highways improvement to provide a forum for all Members to be as involved as they wish. This is, of course, a decision to be made by Scrutiny as to whether they wish to include Highways in their programme.

As it stands there is currently 3500 reported highway defects on our systems. Clearing this backlog is our priority. We would ask Members to please use the on line portal to report further defects as this is the fastest way to ensure that issues are logged and acted upon. We understand that some Members prefer to call the engineers or email officers directly. Where this occurs the response will be for those staff to refer these enquiries in to the Customer Service Centre and let Members know. Having multiple channels of reporting is causing defects to be missed or double logging of the same defect. We can review this as we move forward and once we are on top of outstanding work.

I hope this keeps you informed.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council


My furious response was…

Dave Tremellen 30 Jan 2020, 09:43 (4 days ago)

to Clive, Members, Directors, Tom, Alun, Steven

This is some kind of joke, right?

Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary and, moreover, expertise that has the intimate, detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department that we WOULD have if only the officers we’ve ALWAYS had had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do – if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!

What you’ve done is an insult to every one of those highways professionals and a poke in the eye for David Evans with his arms-length list of highways problems across Craven Arms; David Turner with his catalogue of highways problems across Much Wenlock; Kevin Pardy and a lethal roundabout he’s been trying to get made less lethal for years; Me, with collapsing carriageways and an army of residents with damaged cars (one phoned me yesterday to report her EIGHTH smashed wheel) not to mention a GP practice who can’t get a locum to attend because they refuse to travel the B4555; so what do “we” do, we employ another highways consultant on top of the department full of consultants we’ve already got in WSP, all of whom, presumably, were taken on because they come with “…experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere”.

No way a consultant will sort that lot out, let alone the rest of the county, but now he’s here, whilst he’s at it perhaps he’ll explain to the rest of us how the hell the North West Relief Road is going to benefit the rest of Shropshire, as Steve so confidently assured those us concerned about where the £17 million difference in the predicted cost of the scheme of £71 million and the grant of £54 million is going to come from, because we KNOW where it’s going to come from – US!

Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.

Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, Clive.


Dave Tremellen

Independent Member for Highley Ward

Shropshire Council

Which got me this response…

From: Clive Wright
Sent: 31 January 2020 08:41
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Members; Directors; Tom Blackburne-Maze; Alun Morgan.Highways
Subject: Re: Highways Management Changes

Dear Dave

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate that there has been a number of false starts and ongoing problems in the Highways service. This is why I have now stepped in directly and personally as other management action has failed.

I agree with the thrust of what you are saying. My first port of call in initiating action was to approach and work with front line staff. The time had come to roll up sleeves etc. I have listened to what they consider is needed and I hope and believe we are winning their support. I offered to make immediately available budgets of £2.5m, their response was that this alone would not fix the problems and might make things worse. We must fix the the budget (and we have, albeit in times where resources are limited); our working processes (we are engaging our staff on this, not serving it up to them); incentivise our contractor to mobilise (we are doing this) or find alternative arrangements for small works (we are also doing this with local contractors); and provide different leadership (and I have made swift changes). We are continuing to engage the Highways staff and I met them all for an open conversation earlier this week and to feedback how we are acting on their input, what specific actions are being taken and today how we can only be successful through them.

Solutions are often seem simple from the outside and are more complicated in reality. My approach has been to understand the problem before we come up with the solution. Having said that, what we have to do in this case is not rocket science. There are four components: leadership and motivation; right process; contractor will and capability; resources – money and right skills in the right place. We have to fix all four. The goal is high quality and efficient delivery.

I agree that we should have been able to fix this ourselves without consultant input but we are way past that point and with the support of the Portfolio Holder we agreed it was time to bring things to a head. The consultant is here to bring experience, but his remit is to work with our staff and design solutions with them, not for them. The solutions for Shropshire are likely to be different to those in other places, though there are some fundamental things that we are currently getting wrong. Experience is a massive lift in this respect. I am not blaming our staff but an example is where we have been temporary fixing 74% of potholes, this should be closer to zero or no more than 5%. This change alone implemented quickly will likely pay for the cost of the consultant.

Some of the problems we have, such as parts of the network not being designed for heavy agricultural vehicles won’t be solved anytime soon (though we are lobbying and applying for funding). However, I do intend to dramatically improve our performance on the issues you raise, particularly small works and maintenance. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating and I hope you will afford me the chance to demonstrate the change.

Finally, as you know, I too live in South Shropshire, and I’m not proud of our performance or with our contractor.  All services are stretched but overall staff motivation and optimism is good and we will continue to perform beyond what might be reasonable with the resources we have. We can and must do better with the resources we have in Highways, we will need to add funding and ensure this is well spent. I hope that Members will continue to support and work with us towards this goal. Challenge is always welcome, it provides opportunity to see things from a different perspective and this is a great strength in our Council. I am always open to finding better solutions. Right now, confidence is low in all quarters (Members, the Public, staff and our contractor), but we can and will rebuild this by getting things done on the ground.

I hope this provides you with some assurance.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council

Assurance it did not provide. Well, not entirely, although as a statement of intent it doesn’t leave much to challenge.

My fear is that circumstances will overtake the good intentions listed there for the simple reason that Shropshire Council’s priorities do not have to do with the concerns of ALL its citizens, as witness an economic growth policy predicated entirely on HS2 and the development of the north west of the county, everywhere else can “do one”.

There is not even any support for anywhere in the other three-quarters of the county to even think about doing something for themselves because all those of us representing that rest of the county can get is advice because it comes cheap – unless it comes via a consultant at £1,000 a day!

As I said in my response to Clive Wright’s announcement, we already had all the expertise we ever needed, it was just ignored, by-passed, marginalised, take your pick.

In the case of my own electoral ward, significant programmes of work had been planned over the last several years by our existing highways engineers, designed and costed and all of them subsequently pulled in favour of works elsewhere by people who “knew better where to allocate resources”.