Above Photo: National Highways workers on strike in the North West on 16 December 2022. (PCS Union / Twitter)
With greater pressures on the road network, the job of a traffic officer has seldom been more crucial.
But under this government, they’ve faced real pay cut after real pay cut – so now, they’re striking to demand their worth.
Comprising over 4,000 miles of road, the strategic road network, consisting of England’s motorways and major roads, carries around a third of all motor vehicle traffic in England. Those responsible for looking after this important road network, the National Highways workforce, are tasked with ensuring our major roads are dependable, durable, and—most importantly—safe.
Lisa Marshall, a PCS union rep and Highways worker in Yorkshire, joined the profession in 2016. With a substantial rise in the number of cars on the road, she says it’s an incredibly important job. ‘Traffic officers are normally the first on scene in the event of emergency, prior to the police and ambulance getting there,’ she explains. ‘They assess the situation and try and make it safe.’
As well as working closely with emergency services, traffic officers and control centre staff are responsible for programming signs and providing support when there’s a collision, and often it’s traffic officers who will get a driver involved in a road incident to safety. As a result, for people like Dave, who joined National Highways in 2008, cuts to other emergency services like the police has had a significant impact on his own workload. ‘They have decreased patrols,’ he says, ‘So unless there’s grounds for prosecution, we’re left to deal with incidents ourselves.’
On-road officers are supported by control office staff, who are tasked with constantly watching the cameras to indicate to traffic officers where there are potential breakdowns and incidents on the road network, and with taking calls from the public in the event of an incident.
‘The workload is ever increasing,’ says Mark Dollar, who’s worked for National Highways for nearly three decades. ‘Back in ’95 we didn’t have things like Smart Motorways. The technology side has gone up exponentially and continues to. That’s a good thing: providing drivers with information as bang up to date as we can possibly make it is very important. But people require technical expertise to be able to work with those systems.’
It’s not only technical changes and cuts to other services causing increased pressure. Situations like Operation Brock, a traffic management system set up to deal with cross-Channel traffic problems in the aftermath of Brexit, is also having a significant impact, says Mark. From directing heavy goods vehicles to distributing water, traffic officers from other regions have been doing all sorts of additional work that isn’t formally part of their roles. ‘What was supposed to be an emergency response, a one off, is now has now become the norm.’
Dave says officers in his own region of the North West, where they’re already short-staffed, are being taken away from their normal duties to assist with Operation Brock, putting extra pressure on those who remain. ‘They have no robust system in place to deal with it,’ he says. ‘This government doesn’t have a plan for anything does it? They have a Prime Minister every other month.’
As in so many jobs, pay hasn’t reflected this growing pressure, says Lisa. ‘Since I joined in 2016, we’ve had one percent and two percent pay offers and sometimes we’ve been frozen on pay. It means we’re losing good, experienced traffic officers and control staff who end up working for private companies offering higher salaries.’
With staff shortages, Lisa says the job only increases in stress. As the workforce has shrunk over the years, those who have left have not been replaced to any significant degree because, as Lisa puts it, ‘We’re not paying the salaries to get them back.’
The result of this short-sighted approach, says Mark, is a profession where workers leave in droves and are difficult to replace. ‘It means we lose our most experienced staff and spend considerably more time and money training new people. One of the measures to address it very quickly,’ he adds, ‘is paying people properly.’
Keeping The Wheels Turning
While National Highways is no longer part of the civil service, the purse strings remain firmly in the control of Westminster. Traffic officers are keen to highlight that they are not in dispute between National Highways management who, they say, have their hands tied but rather with the government. ‘They’ve gone above and beyond this year. But it’s the government that determines funding,’ stresses Lisa. ‘They are the ones able to offer a better deal.’
In the absence of that better deal, road traffic officers and control room operators yesterday began three weeks’ strike action. 74 percent voted in favour, a level Lisa says is unprecedented. ‘In previous years, we’ve been below the legal turnout threshold. This demonstrates a shift in how people are feeling.’
Given that the current pay offer would amount to the biggest real-terms pay cut in over a decade, the shift is little surprise—particularly coming as it does on the back of a decade of other consistent real-terms pay cuts. Dave says that the result of this is National Highways workers having to take on second jobs to make ends meet, while Lisa says some of her colleagues are having to resort to using foodbanks. ‘That’s simply not acceptable in this day and age,’ she adds.
‘Almost every year over the last twelve years everybody in the company has taken a real-terms pay cut,’ says Mark. ‘They tell us there’s no magic money tree, but they seemed to find a magic money forest when it came to handing their friends billions of pounds of dodgy Covid contracts.’ He adds that we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened twelve years ago, when they found money to bail out their friends in the banking sector. ‘But they can’t find the money to actually pay their own staff.’
Mark’s anger is shared across sectors, and as Britain heads into the biggest wave of strike action in three decades, the establishment campaign to suppress that anger is growing, too. An argument often made by politicians and pundits alike is that strike action, particularly by those working in or closely with emergency services, puts public safety at risk. But it’s an argument Mark takes issue with.
‘The responsibility lies entirely with the government. They could have come to the negotiating table with a sensible offer. This isn’t something that has suddenly sprouted like a jack in the box,’ he stresses. ‘They’ve known about our grievances for a very long time, and they’ve chosen, as a matter of ideology, to do nothing about it.’
It’s a sentiment the public largely seem to share. Returning from the picket line, Dave says the traffic officers have been overwhelmed by the backing strikers have received from other people. ‘People have been beeping their horns, giving us messages of encouragement. We’ve got the support of the public. People are going through the same thing in other professions too.’
Despite this, the mood is sombre. Lisa, for one, is pessimistic about the government reaching a compromise anytime soon, and neither she nor her colleagues are particularly keen on having to stand on picket lines in the freezing cold—but, they say, they’ve been left with no choice. ‘We’re in for a very long winter of strikes and not just our members but across the board. It’s the nurses. It’s the railway workers. It’s all of us,’ she says.
‘More people are saying enough is enough. We have to be able to put food on the table. We have to be able to pay the gas and electricity bills. If we don’t address this crisis, then this country will be in a very bad place. We don’t come to work to be out of pocket. All we want is to earn a decent living.’