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Buy Cheap, Buy Twice!

Updated: Jun 3

Regular readers of this blog will recall previous missives on the state of the road infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It should come as no surprise that this problem extends across all nations of the United Kingdom. Channel 4's Dispatches program has done a good job in highlighting the issue.

As an alert observer of how the roads are maintained in the province, I can offer the Department for Infrastructure the following suggestions for addressing the problem. I am going to number these and will then grade a couple of recent road works in North Down on these metrics, using a scale of 0-4 (not completed/poor/OK/good/excellent). I will grade only on points 2, 3, and 4 because for an outsider it is impossible to determine what - if anything - was done with respect to the remaining suggestions.

  1. Make people accountable for the job they are assigned to do. The lack of accountability is the greatest hindrance to running Northern Ireland's public services. Waiting lists grow, budgets are either exceeded or not spent or spent in a rush in an attempt not to lose funding for the following fiscal year.

  2. Do not use cost as the only metric to determine who gets awarded a contract. Timely delivery and the quality of the products and work provided are equally important.

  3. Check with local councils whether the proposed dates conflict with any events and might lead to traffic chaos.

  4. Check the quality of the work completed by contractors.

  5. Check with the various utilities whether they have any work scheduled that might require digging up the newly resurfaced roads. Try to coordinate with them.

  6. Ensure that public officials and council employees undergo a yearly performance review and meet their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Let's now have a look at a couple of roadworks that recently were completed around Bangor. I will start with the Groomsport Roundabout.I have written about this previously. For anyone interested, the links are here and here. Below is a screenshot of a report published in the County Down Spectator. It illustrates the shambles that DfI managed to produce. The logic of the DfI spokesman quoted is remarkable. To paraphrase, "it's one overall scheme but because each stage took less than two weeks to complete, we didn't need to highlight any potential disruptionn one of them might cause."

To refresh your memory, work on the roundabout was started on Monday, February 19 2024 and scheduled to last six weeks.

Here are a couple of "Before" pictures taken on February 17 2024

and an "After" one, taken on Friday 31 May 2024.

Work on the roundabout officially was completed on Friday, May 31 2024 - as confirmed by a contractor with whom I had a brief chat. Completion took a total of 15 weeks or 75 workdays. I have not had any comment from DfI that my original estimate of 17 workdays was unreasonable. My estimate may be slightly ambitious on account of the unavailability of certain machinery on a particular day, but surely either DfI or the contractor employed would be able to minimise schedule interruptions?

That work took four times longer than it should have. Why are our local politicians not holding DfI's feet to the fire on this dire state of affairs? The delays were inconveniencing residents and cost tax payers more money.

The work was done to a good standard. I don't grade it excellent because the tarmac used is quite coarse/stoney and in my experience will not last as long as a more granular version. The tarmac on the pavement is smooth, the curbs are level and even, the gutters are level with the road surface and the line markings have been painted neatly. The transitions to the existing old road surfaces are smooth.

Here's my scoring:

Point 2 above (Cost etc) - as per the Spectator, almost £500,000. With my limited experience of having been involved with resurfacing a playing court, that seems high although not totally improbable because it includes the installation of a paved roundabout border. I estimate the material cost of installing that border as follows:

Length of paving slabs required: C = 2πR (C = circumference, R = radius). Assuming the roundabout is about 25m across, C = 78.5m. A paving slab is 60cm square, so 130 slabs are required. 10 slabs can be purchased on eBay for £124. 130 slabs would cost about £1,700 including delivery. I'm going to be generous and score the cost aspect a 2 (OK). Timely delivery: way late, so only a 1. Aggregate score = 1.5.

Point 3 Minimising Local Congestion: 0 - the roundabout was closed on two successive weekends, one coinciding with the UK Pipe Band Championships taking place in Bangor. That caused total chaos in the lanes and forced local bus services on a 20 mile detour (as detailed in the County Down Spectator). Really? Words fail me!

Point 4 Quality of work: you read my comments, let's score that 3 (good).

Taking an average of these three metrics, that's a score of 1.5 - slightly better than poor but not OK. In other words, there is lots of room for improvement.

Compared to the Groomsport Roundabout resurfacing project my next example leaves a lot to be desired: Over the past 10 days or so many roads on the peninsula and around Scrabo have been chipsealed, illustrating what is wrong with road maintenance here: it is done on the cheap and will need doing again in a year or so. In addition, it makes those roads very dangerous to use on two wheels, particularly when cornering. This is the Killynether Road at the bottom of Scrabo as of Sunday 2 June 2024:

It will take months for the aggregate to disappear.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, back in early October 2023 DfI marked and numbered potholes, cracks and fissures on Kylestone Road between Donaghadee Road and High Bangor Road - 85 individual ones to be precise. Yes, I paid attention as I passed them all... Around the turn of the year I noticed that the spray paint markings had become almost invisible, having been worn away by tyres and the elements.

The standard of the recent resurfacing is questionable: the broken tarmac edges on Kylestone Road and elsewhere were not properly repaired and the chipseal was not properly bedded in with a heavy roller. If a roller in fact was used, then way too much aggregate was laid down as there is a loose 1cm layer in many places. This is extremely treacherous for anyone using those roads on two wheels. The excess aggregate will also get washed into the drainage gulleys and block the drainage pipes.


Point 2 Cost - 1: whatever the cost was, it was too much from a taxpayer perspective. Many potholes were not properly repaired, just filled in with aggregate and the broken tarmac edges will continue to deteriorate.

Timely Delivery - 1: nine months to effect pothole repairs simply is not good enough.

Point 3. Minimising local disruption - 3 (good), as I suspect inconveniencing residents was unavoidable at times.

Point 4 Quality - 1 (see above)

That works out at an aggregate score of 1.67 (poor to middling on my scale). While that looks better than the roundabout score, the score is higher only because local disruption was fairly low. In the long term, the poor value-for-money and the poor quality will become very obvious.

I keep banging on about the lack of accountability in government agencies. Nothing is ever anyone's fault... We have a General Election coming up in July. Let me close by suggesting you ask the candidates how they envisage making elected and unelected government employees more accountable for actually doing the job we pay them to do.

If you don't receive a well-thought out plan, find someone else for your vote.

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