ADEPT member, Lancashire County Council, recently won the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation Climate Action Award for their Highways Decarbonisation Strategy. Paul Binks, the Council’s Highways Asset Manager describes what was involved.
Developing Lancashire’s Local Highways Decarbonisation Strategy has centred on one clear principle - to embed carbon reduction in everything we do. Getting there has been an ongoing process of converting thought into action.
Protecting the environment is one of Lancashire's four priorities. Also, it became obvious that decarbonisation was going to be a key driver of Department for Transport (DfT) funding going forward when questions (albeit non-scoring) on sustainability, carbon and biodiversity net gain started appearing in the Local Highways Maintenance Fund self-assessment form. It was clear that at some point, local authorities would be judged on how far carbon modelling had been built into their lifecycle assessments and asked to demonstrate a broader understanding of carbon calculations. From that point, Lancashire started to develop its corporate approach towards decarbonisation and a strategy that went beyond likely DfT requirements to consider carbon as a whole across the entire highways maintenance service.
In Lancashire, although we work closely together, the highways asset service is distinct from the highways service. In addition, we don’t contract out so we can make decisions in-house that don’t involve complex changes to contract. We brought the two teams together alongside fleet management, procurement and property asset teams to start work on the strategy as carbon management is critical across all those services. Contracting Atkins - member of the SNC-Lavalin Group to lead a neutral facilitation meant we sought contributions and ideas on an equal footing, resulting in specialists being able to take the lead in their own areas, a decision that has been essential in securing buy-in. We have also ensured that all actions would be manageable and smart.
One of our key decisions was to build monitoring of the decarbonisation plan into the existing performance management governance structure through the Asset Management Strategy Board so it can be reported publicly as part of the Transport Asset Management Plan. Embedding decarbonisation as business as usual and including carbon figures in costings spreadsheets has enabled us to review carbon impacts when deciding on materials, treatments and purchasing options.
Understanding opportunities for decarbonisation is definitely growing and changing fast; inevitably the knowledge base is fast-changing too, so although we have a roadmap to 2035, we have to be clear on our short term priorities and open to change in the medium to longer term. Holding annual and then more strategic five-year reviews will enable us to take advantage of the current market and available technologies and respond to future advances. For 2022/23, our priority has been to create a carbon dashboard for carriageway capital programming to set out how far we can go, what we need to do to get there and how we build goals into lifecycle planning. Having measured the baseline, we calculate that we will have saved 332 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or over 15% of our overall carbon footprint in this year alone.
Building carbon assessment into the process also brings another critical component into decision-making. Currently, we estimate about 59% of the carbon footprint of a carriageway resurfacing project is in production. Decisions on using warm or cold mix, or foam mix and emulsions, rather than traditional hot mix rolled asphalt, will have an impact on this figure. We also calculate bitumen is around 20/25% of the overall carbon footprint so evaluating options including biogenic binders, rubber crumb, and reclaimed asphalt pavement can help us to reduce these figures even further. Some of Lancashire’s urban unclassified and estate roads, having been built a long time ago, contain coal tar, which is considered hazardous waste and costly to dispose of. Operating in line with Environment Agency guidance and regulations, we can recycle the material rather than transporting it elsewhere for disposal as hazardous waste, which can save us £300,000 over a 12 month period, based on our estimated for the 2023/24 capital programme.
At this point, I have to give credit to Stuart Bradshaw, Lancashire’s Materials Engineer, who is the brains behind our work on materials and considering the impact of our programmes on carbon. From Stuart’s work, we can evaluate the most suitable materials for different treatments and locations and aim to reduce the carbon impact. It can be a complex calculation when decisions on procurement can lead to production line changes, but as more choices are made that consider reducing carbon, it is likely that production costs will decrease over time. Often the difference in cost is not significant when carbon savings are included in the calculations, but obviously these are decisions not just for officers but ultimately for members to make when considering the strategic direction.
Inflation and the current global turmoil will have ongoing impacts on costs, but members and the public will expect the same levels of service, regardless of budget. The challenge for us in local government is balancing the competing demands to carbon optimise with possible increased cost, or optimise the number of schemes delivered utilising low carbon materials that save money or are cost neutral. The role of officers is to provide all the information needed for members to ultimately make decisions; this includes costs and options for carbon saving, but also aspects of social value such as public satisfaction, reduction in potholes and complaints, how an area looks and what that means for local communities.
When I’ve been asked about what it took to create the Lancashire strategy, much of the answer lies in people. I would always advocate for an inclusive process. Bringing people into the development of a strategy that will directly impact on how they do their job is essential, as is clear governance and reporting mechanisms. There has to be a strong commitment from the top and an understanding that we can bring about significant change - that carbon action is an opportunity as well as a responsibility.
Highways engineers have come in for public criticism for the traditional functions of road building and surfacing that prioritise cars and heavy lorries and contribute to climate change. But when I think of the work and dedication of my small team and how we have already reduced the council’s carbon impact by 332 tonnes a year, and how the difference we can make in our professional lives far outweighs any actions we might take on a personal level, important though they are, I think we can and should take real pride in our work. The fact that we’ve won an award for it is testament to what can be achieved when you bring people together.
- Find out more about Lancashire County Council's road maintenance programme.
- Read Lancashire's Highways Decarbonisation Strategy
- Watch Lancashire's video on Carbon saving through ex situ recycling process.
Paul Binks, Highways Asset Manager, Lancashire County Council.