Exclusive: 'Safety fears' as traffic officer numbers fall 31% in South East

Exclusive report by ITV News Meridian's Kit Bradshaw

There are almost a third fewer Highways England traffic officers patrolling the South East’s motorways than there were five years ago.

Official figures, obtained exclusively by ITV News Meridian via a freedom of information request, show numbers have dropped from 271 in 2015 to 188 this year – a fall of 31%.

Motoring groups, trade unions and politicians have lined up to criticise the decline in frontline staffing.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, thinks the statistics are "incredibly worrying" when more so-called smart motorways are being opened, with no hard shoulders.

Traffic officers are incredibly important, especially when there are stranded vehicles on the road. As part of the review [into smart motorways] Highways England committed to hiring more traffic officers but this seems to be going in completely the wrong direction.

Jack Cousens, Head of Roads Policy, The AA

The workers are not police officers but deal with 'incidents such as road traffic collisions, removal of debris and other unplanned events', according to the government website.

Exclusive: Highways England traffic officer numbers down 31% in the South East.

In Kent, where traffic officers could play an important role if there are delays when the Brexit transition period ends, their numbers have fallen even more markedly.

They dropped from 164 in 2015 to 104 now – a reduction of 37%.

Conservative MP for Ashford, Damian Green told ITV Meridian that Highways England should "consider redeploying traffic officers into Kent for the weeks after the transition period ends, to deal with any potential disruption".

Kent saw steeper decline in traffic officer numbers than the South East as a whole.

Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who represents Canterbury, thinks traffic officers play a "vital role" in the county.

"[They] will be on the frontline dealing with any disruption caused by Brexit, and the government needs to ensure that Highways England has the necessary staff in place to prevent gridlock in Kent post-Brexit," Ms Duffield added.

Highways England traffic officers patrol the country's motorways alongside local police forces.

Cllr Dara Farrell, leader of the Labour group on Kent County Council, described the drop as "concerning" and urged the government to recruit additional traffic officers in time for 1 January 2021.

Highways England says it is "confident" it has "sufficient numbers of officers".

But sources inside motorway control rooms have told us the drop in staff means it is becoming more common that there are no Highways England units available to send to incidents, increasing pressure on local police forces to pick up the slack.

Trade unions blame the fall on a year-long recruitment freeze at the government-owned company.

Nick Radiven, from the Prospect union, told ITV News Meridian that if numbers keep dropping it could risk public safety.

From speaking to some of our members out on the road, they're certainly feeling they're short numbered. I am a bit surprised if Highways England think they can cope with normal work and this extra work just with the existing numbers. Not only are there issues like Brexit but there's all-lane running on motorways. So, I think there's going to be a need for more traffic officers, not less."

Nick Radiven, Prospect trade union

Highways England declined to be interviewed but in a statement, a spokesperson said:

"We are confident that we have sufficient numbers of officers to help keep traffic flowing in the South East at the end of the transition period and beyond.

"Our traffic officers will provide a 24/7 service to minimise disruption for people living, travelling and working in the region, and we have robust plans for mitigating any delays and assisting with incidents as they occur.

"We are looking at the way that we patrol our motorways so that our traffic officers are able to attend incidents on sections of smart motorway more quickly."

Highways England traffic officer on patrol.

Kent County Council declined to comment on our findings. In a statement, a Kent Resilience Forum spokesperson said:

"Our priority remains to ensure that the road network in Kent is kept open and that disruption for local residents, businesses and other road users is kept to a minimum, keeping people safe and the county moving."