Is Cllr Stuart Hughes “asleep at the wheel”?

He is certainly very active in Sidmouth spending money on cliff surveys, we know he makes a good DJ/cabaret act, but what about his day job as Devon County Council Cabinet Member – Highways Management?

Remember the Department of Transport instructing local councils to go ahead with planned maintenance last May during the lockdown to clear a backlog of road repairs?  

Questions raised over potholes and drainage underspend

Daniel Clark

Devon County Council is forecasting a £3.7m underspend against its target budget for 2020/21 – but concerns have been raised over lack of spending on potholes and drainage.

The council’s cabinet on Wednesday morning heard that the financial position had improved from the month 8 position of a £1.9m overspend to a £3.7m underspend at the end of month 10.

But councillors heard that the level of uncertainty and pressures being faced by the public sector this year was unprecedented and continues to evolve, and while the projected underspend is welcome, there remain significant far reaching risks associated with the impact of the pandemic.

And questions were raised by opposition members that the highways maintenance budget were forecasting an underspend of £500,000, and that drainage could be underspent by up to £2.6m.

Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “Residents are saying why during the lockdowns hasn’t more been done to fix the problems on the roads, so will we carry forward that budget to get a real march on fixing the problems that we know exist.

“They’ve taken eight months and the best weather to spend half the available revenue funding, and have left the other half to spend in four months and the worst weather when this type of work is the most challenging.”

A car in a 'water lake' at Marsh Barton in 2021

A car in a ‘water lake’ at Marsh Barton in 2021 (Image: Alan Connett)

Cllr Alistair Dewhirst added: “If residents knew we were underspending, they would have been horrified. It would have been good if works done on the highways in the last year when traffic was down, so don’t understand why we are down on that.”

But Meg Booth, chief officer for highways, infrastructure, development and waste, said that while there has a £500,000 underspend on drainage works, they had been overspending on pothole maintenance against the budget, and that the change in forecast is primarily attributable to confirmation that patches greater than 1m squared, and that the underspend in the capital budget was around the more complex infrastructure projects.

The budget forecast see children’s services forecasting an overspend of £2.2m, but this figure does not include the projected deficit of £30.1m on Special Education Needs and Disabilities, and when combined with the 2019/20 deficit, the total figure is now £49.8m, but the meeting heard the service is currently developing a recovery plan for the overall DSG deficit.

Mental health is also forecasting an overspend of £962,000, with the report saying that pressures continue to be experienced from higher client numbers within community-based settings, and Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, added: “I fear that this will be the tip of the iceberg and there will be a mental health long covid repercussions that we will have to deal with, so we need substantial investment in the area.”

Mary Davis, county treasurer, in report, added: “The level of uncertainty and pressures being faced by the public sector this year are unprecedented and continue to evolve. The projected underspend is welcomed but there remain significant far reaching risks associated with the impact of the pandemic, which could be financially destabilising as well as the ongoing pressures being experienced within the DSG.

“The funding issued to support local authorities in responding to the pandemic is significant but the ever-changing landscape we are faced with continues to present service delivery challenges and financial pressures.”

The cabinet agreed to note the budget monitoring forecast position and that the confirmed additional funding Devon County Council is expecting to receive from the Government directly this financial year currently stands at £91m.