Herts highways decisions under fire

PROPOSED changes to the decision-making process on local highways spending have come under fire as a, “massive erosion of local people’s say on a key issue”.

The county council is planning to scrap the current system of highway joint member panels (HJMP) and replace them with biannual highways liaison meetings.

The panels meet regularly and consist of local county councillors and representatives of the district or borough councils for each of the county’s 10 council areas. Local councillors discuss and decide highways issues and are able to receive petitions from local residents.

But the county council’s plan to shake up the system, which they say is to ensure more local people have a say, has come under fire from the Lib Dem Opposition Group.

Their highways spokesperson, Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst, criticised the proposal as, “an erosion of local people’s say on a key issue – the way their roads are maintained”.

He went on: “The Conservatives are planning to remove all scrutiny, by either local people or locally-elected representatives, when it comes to highway decisions.

“No longer will residents be able to come to meetings and present petitions on highways matters to local councillors. They will not hear how we want to spend their money.”

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He added: “This is turning the clock back to private and secret meetings behind closed doors that the press and public are excluded from, and is a massive erosion of local people’s say on a key issue – the way their roads are maintained.”

Under the current system, HJMPs allow councillors to decide on Traffic Regulation Orders and how Section 106 (developers’ money) is spent. Panel meetings are currently open to the public and to the press.

In addition, the panels enable local councillors to go through upcoming highways works and to suggest projects for the future. They also provide an opportunity to question officers about how money is being spent and suggest amendments to schemes.

But Stuart Pile, cabinet member for highways and transport, insisted that under the new format, meetings would be open to the public.

He said the current system of HJMPs limited decisions on highway spending to “a select few”.

He went on: “When we launched our innovative highways locality budget scheme last year – which provides each county councillor with �90,000 to spend on local issues – this gave everyone the chance to have a say on highway spending, from all district, parish and town councillors to residents who have concerns. This change has given us the opportunity to review how highway issues are discussed at a local level.”

He maintained that the introduction of highways locality budgets meant that it was now easier for residents to influence how highways funding was spent locally.

He added: “HJMPs had access to �100,000 per district, but now there is �540,000 to �900,000 available per district for spending on projects that are important to the local community (the amount depends on how many county councillors there are in the district). This is in addition to the millions invested every year across the county on routine maintenance.

The recommendation will now go to Cabinet for ratification on July 16.