#82: Proving that it’s a lot easier to miss the point than address the real issues.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/bridgnorth/2021/05/29/shropshire-residents-urged-to-report-road-defects-using-dedicated-website/?fbclid=IwAR27B9of9rlk11FUc5v_4I40HuDZwYBmXKMmt0dy6kFqeFD74NvaGx2vXpQ

Steve Charmley warning councillors against taking action in a way that doesn’t acknowledge “that things are different now”. They’re certainly different from the (ordinary) elected Member’s position; harder to get things done and virtually impossible to penetrate when things go wrong. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had set things up to make it even harder to blame those ultimately responsible for the mess that elected Members have to contend with. Recently elected councillors won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Accountability (direct, anyway) for cock-ups doesn’t come into it because the possibility of failure obviously wasn’t considered when the Master Plan was drawn up (although finessed would be a better way of putting it because the process started back in 2013), although that doesn’t stop service directors (and portfolio holders) from levelling a charge of heresy against anyone who dares question their actions, or in the case of highways inactions, which in the case of what I started is what this is all about.

At a recent online Member’s briefing on highways for newly elected councillors (and those of us who wanted to see if the message had changed in the interim) we were given the rationale for the current way of working. The commissioning structure was explained and the reasons given for it.

Upshot?

Basically, we elected members had to be nicer/kinder because there was now only a handful of directly-employed Shropshire Council officers administering the two main ‘contractors’, Kier (hands on) and WPS (planning).

In other words, “commissioning” writ large. The day of the spreadsheet made fully flesh and blood had finally arrived. The days of the mortals, it was made clear, are numbered.

And because these were “experts” in the arcane world of work planning, commissioning was sacrosanct, once committed to paper it became Holy Writ.

I’m not making too much of my widely-publicised actions over the state of our highways around Highley when I say that had I been a more sensitive soul then much of what was said about the importance of adhering to the new reporting orthodoxy should have made my ears burn, except that the only thing burning was an increasing sense of outrage that so much was being dictated to us by people who operate from a different set of principles to us; they according to the accepted wisdom of detached professionals; us according to the intimately-known consequences of such a detached view!

But they didn’t want to know. Had an answer to everything. When things started to get embarrassingly close to forcing them to face up to OUR reality, then whoever was “having a go” at the time was closed down by Tanya Miles (Director of Adult Services, presumably put in charge of the proceedings because she was well qualified to assess highways issues and how they impact on the local communities that elected Members know so well) who was chairing the meeting. Had there been a genuine wish to understand the issues that had so incensed not only some of us elected Members, but so many town and parish clerks at the online meeting held the day before, then it would have been agreed to pick up on at least some of the main points and called them into scrutiny. As it was, existing and emerging concerns were summarily dismissed in order to keep things moving on, which has always been the problem that prompted all of my actions. But hey.

And, of course, £130,000 having already been spent on that erstwhile highways consultant (whose expertise we ordinary souls obviously didn’t appreciate, but then how could we, being only ordinary mortals who spend all our time listening to what our constituents tell us), they were hardly likely to say anything that called that expense into question.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/politics/2020/02/22/council-leader-defends-use-of-highways-consultant/

Charmley is just doing his job. In fact, the modus operandi of all portfolio holders is the same, having developed that familiar patronising way of delivering a response that says absolutely nothing. The word “anodyne” was coined for local authority use.

The officers presenting the council’s case obviously hadn’t bothered to check whether the facts as they saw them aligned with the everyday reality of “ordinary” people who are dependent on their cars to get to work, hospital, college, and who are fed up with bills of several hundred pounds to fix cars seriously damaged by sub-standard roads, a particularly annoying – indeed frightening – experience when you’re driving home after a hard day’s work only to end up stationary on a dangerous bend on a lonely country road in the dark.

There is a lot of ‘background’ to the current newspaper reports, going back not weeks or months but years.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/health/2020/01/23/locums-refuse-to-travel-to-gp-surgery-near-bridgnorth-due-to-pothole-ridden-roads/

It is significant that not once has ANYONE (certainly none of those expressing an opinion at that briefing) stepped into the current highways controversy my actions have stirred up and spoken with me or the clerk to my parish council to find out whether there is a case for them to answer, but then the assumption on their part is that there ISN’T a case to answer, an assumption recently ripped apart by what I can imagine is one very frustrated traffic engineer in the employ of Kier who, probably thoroughly fed up that Kier has been getting the flak for the shortcomings of Shropshire Council highways officers and, having to keep schtum, got up from her desk and driven out to Highley to see for herself.

This was the outcome…

Sent: 26 May 2021 09:20

To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>

Subject: New Road, Highley

Importance: High

Good Morning Cllr Tremellen

I just wanted to make you aware that there will be an emergency closure on New Rd, Highley this morning. After driving the road yesterday I believe that the potholes need to be treated as an emergency so we are going to make them safe this morning.

Emergency services and buses will be allowed through due to the short notice of this. As we are making temporary repairs to make safe we will try and get this done as quickly as possible so as not to cause too much disruption.

I have attached a diversion route for your information. This will be the same diversion for the Multevo closure in July.

Apologies for any inconvenience caused I just don’t think that these can be left as they are for much longer after seeing the full extent.

Kind regards

Now THAT is a response from someone not afraid to exercise their professional scepticism and question assumptions to ensure that professional hubris doesn’t get in the way of doing the job they’re paid to do – maintain highways and fix them when they go wrong, which is what the rest of us ordinary mortals judge them on.

A LITTLE HISTORY

At the February 2014 meeting of Full Council I asked…

QUESTION 7: MR DAVE TREMELLEN will ask the following question: Will the Portfolio Holder for Highways admit that they have lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire? In the event that they still cling to the delusion that they are in fact still in control of roads in my part of the county, would they point to the evidence to support that claim.

MRS CLAIRE WILD, the Portfolio Holder for Highways and Transport, will reply: Shropshire Council has not lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire.

Claire Wild wasn’t lying and hindsight can be cruel sometimes, but the passage of time has made my case for me. Claire would have been better keeping quiet. Very quiet!

First elected in 2013 I have asked questions of portfolio holders for highways and since 2013 been given the stock answers that tell us nothing, except that someone has spent time thinking up new excuses for why the situation can’t be that bad. Oh, and anyway, other areas have the same, if not worse, situations, as if that makes it all OK.

So what kicked it all off big time?

There is a perfect stretch of road a few hundred yards just outside my patch, heading south on the B4555, it was completely rebuilt several years ago, the job having been done to what was standard spec back then – in other words, properly: new foundations, drainage off neighbouring fields dealt with, a superb job, a ‘proper job’, it was just beyond ‘New Road’, that section of the B4555 that is the southern exit to Highley referred to in the newspaper reports. (Back then we had Mouchel – with whom I was in direct telephone contact – as consultants and the main council contractor was Ringway, subsequently replaced by WPS and Kier respectively.)

About two years ago a wooded section through the lowest part of New Road started to break up. Deeply wooded, at the bottom of a valley, visibility isn’t the best during daylight and at night it is positively lethal, especially if you are on two wheels. Reports of the surface defects did result in what can only be called surface repairs if you’re in a particularly charitable mood, typically consisting of a shovelful of tarmac in isolated potholes tamped down with a boot that lasted a couple of days, if that, the loose tarmac being kicked up by passing traffic and making the road surface deadly.

That was a situation that had been ongoing for at least two years and which had got progressively worse, to the extent that local drivers had started to divert away from the B4555 onto the unclassified Netherton Lane, thence onto the unclassified and single-track Borle Mill Lane, re-emerging at the junction with the B4555 where the earlier “proper job” had been done several years ago, creating a situation the dangers of which (narrow single-track lane) were pointed out to our highways department only to be completely ignored. And I mean completely ignored.

And then, adding insult to the injury of ignored pleas from an entire local community, our parish clerk got this, the notification that Shropshire Council highways intended to SURFACE DRESS that immaculate stretch of carriageway…

Hi Ella,

I attended a virtual meeting recently to discuss the Council’s capital works programme for 2021/22/23 and beyond, Highley High Street was again mentioned as a scheme for 2021/22 financial year. I don’t know what the extents of a future scheme will be or when the works are programmed to commence but the location is on the agenda.

With regards to surface dressing it is my understanding that the sections of the B4555 are to be surface dressed this season. Surface dressing is an industry recognised method of extending the life of a road surface, preventing formation of carriageway defects, preventing water ingress and improving surface texture (skidding resistance).

The work undertaken earlier in the year was in preparation for this work.

Regards

[end quote]

To which I replied (and notice at this point I was still protecting the officers by redacting their contact details)…

[quote]

Sorry ******, but if this surface dressing is in fact part of a “planned” programme of work then it seriously calls into question the sanity of whoever planned it. I challenge whoever is behind this work to meet with us, visit the various stretches of New Road (B4555) and insist that what’s planned makes any kind of sense.

I don’t apologise for any perceived slight in that challenge because no one can stand anywhere along that potholed track through the wood and insist that they deserve to be called a highways engineer. As none of you guys seem prepared to listen to either Ella or myself, I am seriously tempted to post each of your email addresses across social media and let you lot handle the flak.

Unless, that is, whoever has the balls to meet us on site and attempt to justify what’s planned makes the time to actually visit the site(s) and demonstrate just how wrong several hundred people are to challenge this ridiculous scheme.

Regards,

Dave Tremellen

Member for Highley Division of Shropshire Council

[end quote]

About eight years ago, I started a local Facebook page specifically to keep all highways issues in one place, and it was to that FB page that I posted this:

We’re waiting for a response from “the professionals”. If we haven’t heard back with an answer that MAKES ANY KIND OF SENSE I’ll post the email addresses of all the officers involved in this exchange and leave it to you guys as to what you say. [Note: Capitalised emphasis mine.]

… I gave “our” highways engineers the choice, they could either talk to me as the elected representative of the 3,600+ residents of Highley or they could talk to those 3,600+ residents directly on an individual basis, after all I was having to fend off criticism of THEIR failure to “get the roads fixed” so why should I have to carry the can?

https://www.facebook.com/Highley-Pothole-and-Rubbish-Road-Community-167825413836857

Failing to get so much as an acknowledgement to my challenge (effectively two fingers from the professionals), I put the direct business email addresses of the relevant highways officers on that local Facebook page…

These are the direct email addresses for all those highways officials responsible for the state of our roads.

I’ve included those who are still responsible for the management of works AND those who were/are responsible for the highways policy and the remote way that the works programme is administrated.

Write to them individually, do not copy them into one email because they will leave it to others to answer for them, and be prepared to be ignored in which case it becomes a test of how persistent each side can be.

You will also find yourself answered by a PA-generated stock answer, but persist until you get a human-generated response that addresses the specific issue.

I’ll post in another thread about the jobs we’ve had pulled and the assurances I and Ella Preston the parish clerk have received about the work having only been ‘postponed’ which, in the case of the 20 mph safety zone around the school (scheduled to be done in September 2017), was pulled in favour of work at Shifnal’s Idsall School, which I was assured “would be done sometime in 2018″.

Similar responses were had when the comprehensive work (fully designed, costed and programmed) on the road from the Severn Centre junction down to Birdcage Walk was arbitrarily cancelled.

It’s up to you lot now!

Well, Highley residents came across in no uncertain terms, unfazed by the stock responses that gave rise to the direct action in the first place.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/bridgnorth/2021/05/27/shropshire-councillor-circulates-highways-contacts-to-thousands-of-residents-over-state-of-potholed-roads/?fbclid=IwAR3fEiZOnJ0ESlG2km2XL48I2oeW8DhXmYK-U8eKE3e7JDbAntIOT1S-pSE

But I will make this very important point. My action was not only prompted by the general pothole/collapsing road situation across Shropshire, it was also prompted by the unbelievable pomposity of highways engineers who, even when they did agree to meet us, didn’t turn up and didn’t have the courtesy to apologise for their absence and suggest a place, date, and time for an alternative meeting. On every such occasion we have tried to accommodate them, especially when the suggestion for that original meeting has come from them (and we still have the emails).

And, of course, locally “we” wanted to know HOW those highways officers could STILL justify spending so much on surface dressing that perfectly good stretch of road (probably the best half-mile stretch of carriageway in South Shropshire) when they had to drive over a collapsing stretch of road to get to it! But the manual of national standards they work to said it was time to surface dress and so surface dressing it was and to hell with what was actually desperately NEEDED.

Highley is a vibrant community of 3,600+ people, with a High Street deeply incised with “potholes” that can be measured in feet. Again, in 2017 (the 20 mph school safety zone was pulled at the same time in favour of a scheme at Idsall School, Shifnal) a full programme of works was scheduled to completely resurface the centre of the village (we were even given a choice of surface colours) and put waiting time limits on the three lay-bys in response to requests by local traders, restrictions that were agreed several months ago but have yet to be authorised by Shropshire Council’s legal department.

I was hoping Shropshire would retain Steve Davenport as portfolio holder for highways because whatever faults he may have had, as a motorcyclist he recognised a dangerous road surface when he saw it. I have to admit to serious concerns when I heard that Lezlie Picton and Steve Charmley had been elected by the more timorous of their peers, especially with the latter being handed the highways portfolio, because their response to a dangerous road surface was more likely to be just to avoid addressing the problem rather than getting it fixed, a fear that has been amply justified by the Shropshire Star article that heads this blog.

As for Lezlie Picton’s ‘commitment’ to ‘review’, well, words come cheap “assurances” come even cheaper. Now that she has made herself part of the highways department her words will be judged alongside theirs.

It was under Steve Davenport’s (knowledgeable) aegis that we eventually got this follow up to that earlier “emergency” email from the Kier engineer…

Good afternoon Cllr Tremellen

I would like to make you aware of a road closure that will be taking place on the B4555. This closure is to undertake highway repairs using a Multievo machine. Multievo gives longer lasting results than regular patching.

In the meantime we will undertake temporary repairs to the defects in order to make them safe.

The closure dates will be as follows:

B4555 New Road – 12/07 – 14/07

B4555 Ingram Lane to Eardington – 15/07 – 23/07

I will forward the diversion maps to you when I have received them I just wanted to take this opportunity to give you notice of the dates.

Kind regards

Charmley had to say something when he was phoned by the Shropshire Star journalist, just a pity that what he said reflected pretty much what had caused the problems in the first place, ignorance of the on-site situation compounded by complete indifference to a situation that had been caused by his administration’s decision three years ago to cut £20 million out of the highways budget and continue to spend money on projects (a lot of them coincidentally favouring Charmley’s own sphere of influence in and around Oswestry (Shurely a coincidence, Ed), financed with money that could be more productively spent elsewhere in the county.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/politics/2018/08/10/revealed-north-shropshire-gets-10-times-more-capital-spending-than-south-of-county/

Charmley and his Oswestry mates not only insist nothing has changed since that £20 million kick in the teeth, but that such budgetary cuts have actually improved efficiency.

All of which takes me back to the days of Chris Edwards. Who he? The last of the good guys with a profound understanding of how to make the relationship between elected Members and the Executive work. I wrote at some length about Chris (where, for reasons of confidentiality necessary at the time, he was referred to as ‘Jim Smith’) and the shameful way he was treated in the blog article entitled ‘#68: Now you see him, now you don’t. Lifting at least a corner of the Shirehall carpet.’

Back in the day there was real mutual understanding of the respective roles of those who, regardless of whether elected or salaried, saw their function as being “servants” of the Shropshire taxpayer and their respective roles as being genuinely ‘plan led’, the plan having been mutually agreed as the best that could be achieved under increasingly constrained resources. As it is now, what semblance of a plan exists is predetermined by director-led policies that are inward-looking and iron-clad defensive.

Come back Keith, all is forgiven, or might as well be.

And I simply can’t resist…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/politics/2017/03/31/tories-pledge-to-spend-21-million-on-roads-if-re-elected-at-shropshire-council/

APPENDIX.

Safety zone around Highley Community Primary School, fully designed and costed but removed from the works programme in 2017 in favour of work at Idsall School, Shifnal. No sign of it ever being resurrected…