The UK Department for Transport (DfT) now puts forward cost as the principal reason for the failure to convert road traffic signs to metric. Ronnie Cohen reports on a major study he has recently carried out, using the Freedom of Information Act, to find out the actual costs of replacing and installing traffic signs. He finds that the DfT estimate of cost, published in 2006, bears little relation to reality.
In 2006, the UK Metric Association published the “Metric Signs Ahead” report on the metrication of British road signs. (Source: UKMA, http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/MSA.pdf) This report estimated that the cost of amending or replacing half a million road signs would be in the range £41 – 160 million, with a “most probable” figure of £80 million, some of which would be absorbed within annual revenue budgets. This is equivalent to £82 – £320 per sign with a “most probable” figure of £160 per sign.
In response to the UKMA report, the DfT published its own report, “Estimating the cost of conversion of road traffic signs to metric units”, on the cost of replacing around half a million signs. (Source: The National Archives, http://tinyurl.com/7bqczxa) It was estimated that the cost of amending or replacing around half a million signs would be in the range £680 – 760 million. This is equivalent to £1360 – £1520 per sign. In a FOI request, I asked the DfT whether they have done any further research into the cost of the metrication of road signs. The DfT admitted that they have not.
The DfT and UK Transport Ministers are now the main obstacles to the completion of the metric changeover in the UK. The justification that the DfT now uses to defend the status quo is that a metric conversion programme costs too much, and it bases this claim on its own figures for the metrication of road signs. I noticed that UKMA only had information about the cost of Irish road signs, Portsmouth road signs, driver location signs and changes to Spanish speed limit signs. I felt that we need a lot more information about road sign costs to make a convincing case for the Metric Signs Ahead report and to demolish the DfT cost claims and disprove the DfT claims that the costs of change are too prohibitive.
I have made FOI requests with a total of 37 councils, including all 32 London Boroughs. The other councils I contacted were the City of London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Reading councils. I also made enquiries with road sign suppliers and did some web searches for news reports that contain information about road sign costs. Of all these councils, 34 replied (excluding automated acknowledgements and requests for clarifications and more information). From the ones that replied, 8 provided inadequate information, 6 refused to provide information on cost grounds, 4 said that they had no information and 16 provided adequate information. This article contains information from councils, which provided adequate information about road sign costs, from Portsmouth, which provided information to Robin Paice, chairman of UKMA, and from Wiltshire, which provides information about road sign costs on its website. Here are my findings.
Actual Costs of New Road Signs for Local Councils
|Council||Total costs||Quantity||Average costs|
|Barking and Dagenham||£16 000||244||£66|
|Kensington and Chelsea3||£9 533||152||£63|
Actual Costs of Changed Road Signs for Local Councils
NOTE: “Changed Road Signs” refers to replacement signs and amended signs.
|Council||Total costs||Quantity||Average costs|
|City of London2||£41 183||51||£808|
|Kensington and Chelsea3||£81 466||1320||£62|
|Waltham Forest8||£50 240||427||£118|
Overall Average Costs of Road Signs for Local Councils
From the two tables above, the overall average costs of road signs for local councils can be calculated. The overall average costs are:
Barking and Dagenham (£66), Camden1 (£395), City of London2 (£808), Ealing (£62), Enfield (£289), Havering (£155), Hounslow (£50), Islington (£397), Kensington and Chelsea3 (£62), Lambeth4 (£137), Portsmouth5 (£100), Reading6 (£822), Redbridge7 (£92), Southwark (£128), Waltham Forest8 (£118)
Cost Figures from Other Councils
Sutton Council was unable to provide actual cost figures but provided cost estimates for various types of road sign instead. Here are their estimates:
New illuminated speed limit sign, including electricity supply (£1200), Replace exiting sign plate for an externally illuminated sign (£100), Replace existing internally illuminated sign (£400), Replace existing internally illuminated sign with externally illuminated sign, including post extension (£350).
Sutton Council added the following comments to their figures for new illuminated speed limit signs: “Speed limit signs have to be internally or externally illuminated and therefore this would increase the cost of installation. A new sign, including electricity supply, would therefore cost approx. £1200.”, “In a number of locations, signs may be able to be replaced on existing posts and the other costs shown above would apply.”
Tower Hamlets Council provided a schedule of fixed rates for road signs as the basis for their road sign costs. The rates quoted here include the cost of the replacement signs and installation costs but do not include costs for removal of existing signs and posts or for the provision of new posts. These rates are based on the size of the signs.
Replacement costs for Tower Hamlets road signs are: Sign Face of 0.25 m² (£90), Sign Face of 0.5 m² (£140), Sign Face of 1 m² (£235), Sign Face of 3 m² (£252)
Wiltshire Council provides information about the costs of road signs on its website. Here is a quote from a page on its website (Source: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/parkingtransportandstreets/roadshighwayspavements/roadmaintenance/costwiltshighwaysworks.htm):
“To erect a warning or regulatory sign on a new post costs £150 – £500 dependant [sic] on size. Direction signs on new posts typically cost between £200 – £1,000 dependant [sic] on their size. (If any sign requires external illumination then a further £500 – £1,000 can be added to the cost for connection to the electricity supply). A village nameplate on two new posts costs up to £350. If a road safety message is required this costs an additional £150.”
Significance of Council Figures
No figures, whether estimated or actual, have been adjusted for inflation. Despite the fact that there is a difference of several years between the UKMA and DfT cost estimates of road sign costs and the councils’ figures and thus takes no account of inflation since the UKMA and DfT reports, it is significant that eight councils’ figures fall within the UKMA range of £82 – £320 per sign. The UKMA figures are supported by figures from Enfield, Havering, Lambeth, Portsmouth, Redbridge, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest councils. By contrast, not a single council supports the DfT figures of £1400 per sign despite the fact that several dozen councils were contacted and 16 of them provided adequate information. I was also unable to find a single road sign supplier or road contractor that supported the DfT figures.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that the UKMA Metric Signs Ahead report was published in 2006 and that inflation since then was bound to have an impact on road sign costs, four councils provided figures that were below UKMA’s lower range. Of the two highest figures, the average of £808 per sign for the City of London relates to illuminated signs only and the average of £822 per sign for Reading relates to motorway signs. Their figures are still far below the DfT’s estimate of £1400 per sign.
The real significance of the council figures is that these are the actual costs of road signs in the real world rather than the fantasy figures provided by the DfT. The DfT figures have also been discredited by news reports and ministerial replies (see below for more information). These news reports and ministerial replies also refer to the actual costs of road signs in the real world.
The Sales Manager at Viewtec Signs described the DfT’s figure of £1400 per sign as “massively excessive” and “that if metric conversion went ahead, many of the existing posts could be re-used and it would only be a matter of swapping the sign plate for the majority of locations”.
Evidence from News Reports
Occasionally, there are reports that relate to the installation of road signs and provide information about road sign costs. Here are a few that I have found:
The link, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/cirencester-highway-has-71-road-signs-380464, contains a report with the headline, “Cirencester highway has 71 road signs in half a mile”. The amount quoted for total spending on these signs is £8500, equivalent to £120 per sign.
The link, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-382842/Excessive-road-signs-branded-waste-money.html, contains a report with the headline, “Excessive road signs branded waste of money”. The report says that £9000 was spent on more than 100 road signs. That works out at less than £90 per sign.
The link, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/gloucestershire/7920372.stm, contains the report, “‘Excessive’ road signage reviewed”, appeared on the BBC News website on 3 March 2009. Here are a couple of quotes from this report, one of which gives the cost of the road signs:
- “The installation of 35 No U-turn signs on a half mile stretch of the A419 in Gloucestershire is under review.”
- “Some drivers and local residents had complained there were too many of the signs, which cost £120 each.”
Evidence from Ministerial Replies
The link, http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-06-12c.278813.h, contains the following question by Robert Goodwill, Shadow Minister for Transport:
“what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of installing overhead line warning signs on roads for which the Highways Agency is responsible in each of the last three years; and how many such signs have been installed;”
Chris Mole, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, provided a table of cost estimates that worked out at £33 per sign for 2007-8 and at £74 per sign for 2008-9.
In 2009 in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of Transport, Chris Mole, said “Driver Location Signs were introduced in 2003 and approximately 16 000 signs have been installed on 80% of the motorway network at a cost of £5.9 million. ….”. Thus, the average cost of driver location signs was £370 each. (Source: House of Commons Hansard http://tinyurl.com/6ohjtsp)
How much more evidence does the DfT need before it admits that its estimate of £1400 per sign is grossly inflated and not credible? If it had asked councils and the Highways Agency, which actually do the work, and road sign suppliers and contractors about road sign costs when it produced its report about the costs of the metrication of UK road signs, it would have got more sensible figures. Even replies of transport ministers do not support the DfT figures. Unlike the DfT figures, all the figures from councils, news reports and ministers in this article are actual costs of real road signs in the real world.
Since the DfT published its report, it has done no further research into the costs of metrication and made no effort to find out how it can be done cheaper. Instead, it has used its own erroneous figures as the basis of its argument that a conversion programme would cost too much.
There is no point in deluding themselves about the costs of metrication. The more that it is put off, the more the eventual costs will be as any new imperial signs will need to be amended or replaced. It should now abandon its cost claims, admit that they are ridiculous and stop using them as an excuse to postpone metrication and to justify the status quo.
1 Camden Council spent £23 332.73 replacing 59 lit sign posts as part of its structural testing programme for the lighting team.
2 Replacement of illuminated signs only. All issues concerning non-illuminated signs are included as part of a much larger contract with CoL’s highways contractor F.M.Conway.
3 £2200 spent on new signs, £18 800 spent on existing signs. No breakdown of £70 000 installation costs, assumption of proportional amounts spent on new and existing signs.
4 The number of replacement signs includes all missing signs.
5 Information obtained by Robin Paice, chairman of UKMA, under FoI request. Figures are for 2007/2008 financial year.
6 The traffic signs were installed as part of the M4 Junction 11 and Mereoak Improvement Scheme.
7 Redbridge Council only gives total costs of installation. Total signs = 652, new signs = 522. Thus existing signs = 130. No breakdown of installation costs for new and existing signs is given. Signs supply cost~£112.50 per square metre (also provided)
8 Approximate number of replaced signs