Road Maintenance Budget

Oral Answers to Questions — Regional Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 2:45 pm, 22nd February 2016

2. Mr McCallister asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on her Department's budget for road maintenance. (AQO 9683/11-16)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

The budget for the Department for Infrastructure, as agreed by the Executive in January, provided a capital allocation of £46 million for roads structural maintenance, which I welcome. This will allow for increased expenditure on maintaining the condition of the existing network and reduce the cost of maintenance in future years. However, capital structural maintenance is only one element of the roads maintenance programme. A number of roads maintenance activities are funded through the resource budget. These include street lighting inspection and maintenance, pothole repairs, grass cutting, gully emptying, and weed spraying. These are important aspects of road maintenance in ensuring public safety.

A resource allocation of £20 million was provided for roads maintenance in Budget 2016-17, which again I welcome. However, a 5·7% reduction on DFI's overall resource budget presents a challenging position for delivering services across the Department. Together with my officials, I am taking forward a detailed analysis of all activities that impact on the resource budget for DFI. This will ensure that budget is allocated to maximise service delivery across all aspects of the Department, which will obviously include road maintenance activities. I expect this review to conclude in the coming weeks, at which point budgets will be confirmed to all business areas.

In the current year, 2015-16, the budget for capital structural maintenance is currently £39 million. In addition, my Department received a resource allocation of £16·5 million in the November monitoring round to enable road maintenance activities, including winter service, to be provided. This has enabled a reduction in the backlog of street lighting and pothole repairs and additional gully emptying to be undertaken.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. No doubt the Minister will be aware of the extremely wet winter we have been having and the toll that that is taking, in particular on our rural roads. South Down is suffering as much as anywhere. What role and action is the Minister taking, and how much pressure is she exerting, in Transport NI's identification of necessary repairs and of erosion and excess water? Can she give an undertaking that potholes will be identified quickly and filled in with hot bitumen, rather than the cheaper cold bitumen, as it lasts significantly longer? Does her Department —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I think you have had enough questions.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I was just going to give her a chance to comment on any claims against —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Please sit down before I tell you to sit down.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, he has a great deal of experience with pothole repairs. I could nearly offer him a job in Transport NI.

The Member will be aware that there is a duty on my Department to maintain all public roads in a reasonable condition. That is subject to available resources. The maintenance standards for safety are in place, and they are designed to ensure a consistent level of service. Standards and procedures have been established for the frequency of road inspections. They depend very much on traffic volumes and specific response times for the repair of defects. I, like everyone else in the Chamber, will be aware that there have been issues with response times, but it very much depends on the severity of the defect. The time taken can range from it being repaired within one day to it being put into a programme of works for the next time that the route is having substantial repairs done to it. Those systems and procedures have been tested by the courts.

Regarding the type of bitumen that is used, the Member has shown a certain degree of expertise. My Department carries out repairs using methods that are recognised by the industry. The traditional repair method is to use hot bitumen and spray injection patching. On occasions, as the Member indicated, where high-priority repairs are required, the cold layers will be used, but that is a temporary measure and is in place only until further works can be carried out in the area. Be assured, however, that road maintenance is something that I take seriously, and I have been trying to get additional money for it.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I appreciate that the Minister took up position with road maintenance at a low under the previous Minister, but has she been able to generate additional funds from her budget as we come to the end of this financial year to put towards road maintenance?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Since coming into office, I have been focused on the appropriate use of the remaining budget and on ensuring that internal efficiencies have been made. All my Department's budget lines and areas of expenditure have been reviewed to ensure that as much money as possible has been available for high-priority activities such as patching and street-lighting maintenance. We have looked at removing all non-essential expenditure on administration, and that has generated savings. Staff overtime has been significantly reduced, being permitted only when it is required to deliver prioritised services.

Additional savings have been generated from the voluntary exit scheme through a combination of increased staff numbers and staff leaving earlier than originally planned. The relatively mild winter has also allowed some funding that had been set aside for winter service to be redirected. I am pleased to say that, since the beginning of January, an additional £3·2 million of resource funding and £2 million of capital funding has been reprioritised for essential maintenance activities, such as street lighting, patching, gully emptying, road markings and resurfacing. That is good news. It will help the local economy, as well as local councillors and MLAs.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for the funding that has been rolled out in recent weeks.

To continue the theme of potholes, I came across one yesterday that had completely wrecked a car. I have, however, been given an undertaking that it will be fixed this week. The Quarry Products Association (QPA) states that there is a £50 million shortfall in the current road maintenance budget. What is your response to that?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I do not think that we need the QPA to tell us that there has been a shortfall; we are all acutely aware of the challenges in our constituencies. I have regular conversations with the QPA, and it is aware that, since coming into office, I have bid for additional money and have tried to do the best that I can in a very short time. I know that that adds pressures to the industry. It adds to pressure on families when workers have to go across the water to find work. Again, that impacts on our local economy. It is my job and that of others in the Assembly to ensure that we prioritise money in the right direction, and road maintenance is one of those areas.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:00 pm, 22nd February 2016

The road maintenance budget allocated by the Executive has been inadequate and has relied on in-year monitoring for many years, but the Quarry Products Association and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Audit Office have highlighted how important it is to carry out timely repairs and resurfacing or we will end up patching the patches and wasting money endlessly. Has the Minister recognised the strategic importance of road maintenance? What assessment has been made so that we get the balance right between new build and road maintenance? Can we afford to maintain our existing roads? It appears not. What does the Minister say?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Having held this position before, his party will be acutely aware of the challenges in relation to that. It is well known that a stitch in time saves nine, and it is important to put as much money as possible into the maintenance of our roads. A study says that we need to put in approximately £141 million per year to sustain our network. There is a backlog, and there will continue to be a backlog, but it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that money is focused on this area.