The predominantly budget-based approach to asset-management practised by local authorities in the UK is about to undergo significant change, driven by two developments
The first is the shift to a broad, risk-based approach to asset management that places environmental considerations high up the list of priorities. And the second is the availability of more advanced asset-management technologies that include data-driven, predictive capabilities.
It is no surprise that in their approach to matters such as highways, local authorities have historically put cost and budgetary considerations at the top of their list. Local authority finances are always under stress. Indeed, it’s constantly a battle to balance the books – for example, early in 2022, the County Councils Network analysis of indicative roads maintenance funding revealed that county and rural councils outside of England’s major cities and urban areas could receive £727 million over the next financial year, representing a reduction of £480 million compared to what they received two years previously.
As a result, in road repairs, for instance, officers must balance the impact of lower-cost surface treatments that provide an immediate but short-term solution, against the use of more durable materials and techniques that are more expensive.
The same set of challenges repeats itself in relation to street lighting, arboreal management, grounds maintenance – in fact, across the full range of assets.
Environmental risk factors in highways maintenance
Compounding the budgetary constraints, there is a new shift of emphasis to include an environmentally-sensitive set of risk factors in relation to highways following new guidelines such as the UK Roads Liaison Group’s Well-managed highway infrastructure code of practice. This was formally published in 2018, but previous codes remained valid for up to two years.
The new code requires authorities to adopt enhanced lifecycle planning and to be more inclusive of socio-economic factors. It urges them to move away from a narrow focus on measurements and data arising from within the asset and to concentrate more on outcomes. In practical terms that could mean changing a road junction layout to reduce the number of cars churning out greenhouse gases as they queue to turn.
Equally, the design and siting of a new school should have as little impact as possible on road infrastructure. Authorities might need to consider the use of blacktop footways instead of paving slabs in areas with a high proportion of elderly residents, in order to avoid trip hazards. This is a much more holistic approach that encompasses the wider impacts on neighbourhoods and communities.
More data sources and better decisions
Without technology it would be difficult for local authority officers to analyse all these factors and come up with a set of recommendations unless they spent an unsustainable amount of time on each project. But significant developments in asset-management technology make all these highly varied inputs and factors much easier to collate and analyse, giving authorities the ability to make faster and better decisions based on diverse data sets. Asset-management solutions scan the risk horizon for relevant factors, including the possibility of missed opportunities. They employ visualisation techniques to make data readily comprehensible.
The more connected systems also offer predictive analytics which enable authorities to base highways management and maintenance decisions on the risk they pose to local residents, the environment and the local economy. Predictive analysis helps authorities gain much better understanding of how infrastructure decisions affect the quality of life in specific neighbourhoods, taking into account projected job creation, support for economic growth, and changes in levels of access to important public resources. In highway maintenance, authorities are able to advance from thinking solely about the condition of roads, to considering where they should be located, who is likely to use them and what their overall risk impact might be.
An authority may, for example, have to decide whether it should implement a traffic-calming scheme in the vicinity of a school so it can mitigate risk. And when it comes to fixing potholes, it may be necessary to prioritise repairs on busy routes where many retired people live. As we move forward, management of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles may well add to the responsibilities of local authorities, which makes asset-management technology ever more necessary.
An emphasis on lifecycle management also makes asset-management technology indispensable so authorities can commence the required approach right at the beginning, with design. A little further ahead, the proliferation of relatively low-cost sensors and the development of the industrial internet of things technologies is likely to bring local authority involvement in the construction of roads.
As the risk-based approach matures, assessment of environmental impact will involve using technology to place a carbon value on each option in asset maintenance. Officers’ recommendations will be drafted on the basis of a wealth of solid and reliable evidence drawn from across many sources of data. Until now, this has not been possible with conventional approaches, but the availability of advanced asset-management has transformed all that.
Its “de-siloing” of data, ease of integration and focus on collaboration and innovation, have put important new capabilities in the hands of local government. With more modern and more connected asset-management systems, authorities can implement the environmentally-sensitive, risk-based methodology that has become best practice.
About the Author
Andy Peart is a marketing leader and business strategist with 30+ years’ experience in the AI and B2B software sector. Working with connected asset management leader, Yotta, Andy heads their marketing function and helps ensure the company’s innovative software drives business benefit for its 200+ public and private sector customers.