People buying homes on new estates in Lancashire could soon get an indication of how long it might take for the roads outside their properties to be adopted.
But residents will still receive no guarantee about when the process will be completed – or if it will happen at all.
Until a new road is completed to an acceptable standard, it is not eligible to be maintained by Lancashire County Council, the region’s highways authority. Adoption usually takes around five years from when construction of a development begins.
County Hall is now set to recommend that a condition is included when developers are granted planning permission, laying out an indicative timeline for the process – and reflecting the specific phases of individual developments. It would be for district councils to decide – as the county’s planning authorities – whether such a condition should be attached.
But a meeting of the county council’s internal scrutiny committee heard that neither the county nor district councils have any powers to force housebuilders to offer their roads for adoption.
Neil Stevens, the authority’s highways development control manager, said that most “mainstream” developers do want to be able to hand over the highways which they build to the county council – which would then become responsible for their upkeep.
“I’m trying to provide certainty to those residents [about] a timeline for that adoption process,” he said.
But the proposal drew a mixed response from committee members. County Coun Erica Lewis, herself a resident of a currently unadopted road, said that she was not sure of the point of the plan.
“What [residents] want is for their road to be adopted,” she said.
However, fellow committee member John Fillis – a former cabinet member for highways at the authority – said that the condition could bring clarity for potential purchasers about what they could expect after they move in to their new homes.
“Local planning authorities can [include a line in the planning conditions] that, if a road is to be adopted, a timeline should be agreed with the highways authority. If [the developer] doesn’t agree to that, it can be taken out – but then the solicitors working for the house purchases will see that [omission] and can then ask the question, ‘How come you will not have this road adopted?’” Coun Fillis said.
“If the line is [included], but the builder then doesn’t have the road adopted, then there is a clear course of action [which could be] be taken [by the homeowner],” he added.
County council officers will now draw up the exact wording of the condition to be recommended for use by district authorities as part of the planning process.
County Coun Steve Holgate said that the current ambiguity on the part of some developers about when – or whether – their roads would be adopted was tantamount to selling houses “under false pretences”.
“The expectation is very high that at some point the local authority will adopt [these new roads], but there is nothing in place to suggest that – and nobody is telling [the] purchasers.
“In time, that [problem] usually gets dumped on our doorstep and becomes a reputational issue for the authority – and I don’t think that’s fair,” County Coun Holgate said.
WHAT’S THE HOLD UP?
There are currently almost 550 applications for adoption being processed across the Lancashire County Council area – and the authority deals with 5,000 enquiries from developers about adoption every year.
But before the authority will adopt a road, highways bosses have to be satisfied that it meets the standard which they set for the rest of the road network in the county. That includes ensuring that work both above and below the surface is up to scratch – including the need to provide proper drainage of surface water from new developments.
Legal agreements with statutory drainage authorities need to be in place before a road can be adopted – and drainage issues are one of the most common delays during the adoption process, county councillors were told.
Neil Stevens, highways development control manager at Lancashire County Council, said that the authority has a good relationship with developers. But he added that housebuilders are sometimes too slow to consider the requirements of adoption at the start of the planning process – and too quick to move on when the final houses are completed.
“[At the planning stage], a lot of developers don’t want to provide [the necessary] level of detail – its expenditure for them when there is no permission yet in place. [Their proposal] may come with a very pretty plan, but that might not be the final layout.
“[Once] they’ve sold all the houses, they’re moving on to the next development. Sometimes developers don’t help themselves with the provision of all the documentation to help us move forward with adoption, because they’re now going through the planning process on [a new] site,” Mr Stevens explained.
Other complicating factors include a requirement for a newly-adopted road to be directly connected to another adopted highway – without any gap. That can prove a particular problem on large estates with multiple developers all working to different timescales – or if the road to be adopted is connected to the rest of the network via a bridge which is not maintained by the county council.
During the construction phase of a road on a new development, highways officers visit the site to make sure that they are satisfied with the work. But there is then a further minimum 12-month gap between a road being laid and it being adopted – with a checklist having to be completed first.
“We’ve got to let everything settle – we don’t want any soft spots [in the surface] or for the gullies to fail. During construction, the kerbs are often damaged – and so we would want them replaced,” Neil Stevens said.
“But we can’t force a developer to put a road up for adoption. We’d have [them] only delivering part of a road and then [asking us] to sort out their problems – we’d be bankrupt within weeks,” he added.
However, County Coun David Whipp said that the whole process often left residents of new estates with a poor deal.
“People are being expected to pay top dollar in council tax and then they find the road is not eligible for maintenance and they can’t get any gritting carried out,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed that an estate in Chorley is yet to have its roads adopted after more than six years. As another 12 months prepares to tick by, Duxbury Manor resident Lindsay Hill said she and her neighbours are still waiting.
“The road outside our house is still broken and in need of repair and the blocked drain is still blocked.
“The new estate at the front of [the overall development] is now finished and the road has been completed at the entrance, so there is no reason why it can’t be adopted,” Lindsay said.
The situation facing the Duxbury Manor residents was complicated by the fact that the developer of the estate has since gone into administration. Lancashire County Council was approached for an update on when the roads within the estate might be adopted.
The National Housebulders’ Federation (HBD) said that it would be a “misrepresentation” of the situation to suggest that developers are wholly responsible for delays in roads being adopted.
“Developers securing highway approvals to commence works is key to the whole delivery process – and therefore a significant amount of resource is generally expended via professional consulting engineers and specialists at pre-application stage to ensure that submissions are correct and in the form they should be, in an attempt to speed up and smooth the highway approval process,” Steve Turner from the HBF said.
“What is experienced more often than not is poorly resourced and inexperienced highway authority teams, inundated with applications and, as a result, failing to deliver. There are also common scenarios of inconsistency of staff within some county councils and also contradictions in requirements for the highway design from members of the same highway authority teams which stalls the process significantly.
“As far as developments not being completed prior to adoption or handover there are I’m sure some instances where this may happen. However, we also experience the adopting authority seeking betterment of a scheme over and above that which has been consented and which is legally binding – and, as a result, will seek to delay adoption of infrastructure and attempt to create a position of leverage with the bond secured on the works by the developer,” Mr Turner added.