Record levels of investment in highway maintenance appear to be having little effect on the overall condition of local roads according to the latest survey of councils.
Local authorities in England and Wales currently have the highest highway maintenance budget (£3.5Bn) in a decade, up 20% on last year, with funding from central Government (£1.2Bn) also at a 10 year high.
But the total spend is still some way short of the amount needed to halt the decline in highway condition, says Asphalt Industry Alliance chairman Rick Green, with some councils reporting they have less to spend on road maintenance this year compared to 2017.
“Yes, there has been increased expenditure and that is encouraging,” he told TP Weekly News. “But under investment has been going on for decades and there is still a requirement for over £9Bn to bring the roads back into good order.”
On top of that, he added, one in five local roads are in a poor structural condition and could fail in the next five years if they are not properly maintained.
“A lot of money is spent on reactive maintenance rather than pre-programmed, preventative maintenance and the pothole is a symptom of a deteriorating road,” he said. Local authorities have done a “fantastic job” in being as efficient as they can, but need more money and greater certainty of funding, he added, in order to plan works better and help to arrest the decline.
The average annual budget shortfall for English authorities to spend on carriageway maintenance is £3.4M, down from £5M last year, according to figures contained in the Association’s Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey. In Wales the figure is £3.1M, down from £3.7M. But in London the shortfall has increased to £3M, up from £2.5M in 2017. Average time needed to clear the maintenance backlog stands at 14 years.
The number of potholes filled has continued to decline steadily from a record high in 2015. This is a positive move, according to the Association, “as it may reflect a shift towards more efficient whole life asset management”.
Compensation claims in the last year from motorists has fallen in England (259 per authority, down from 281) and in Wales (34 as opposed to 39) But in London the number has risen from 34 to 43.
Reacting to the report, Highways Term Maintenance Association chief executive George Lee said: “This year’s ALARM survey makes for very interesting and possibly surprising reading, as it seems to indicate a significant turnaround from previous surveys with a 10 year high in maintenance budgets, the budget shortfall dropping and the critical ‘catch up cost’ dropping by £2.7Bn.
“However, while these statistics are encouraging, they still indicate the scale of the problem faced by drivers and highway authorities is immense.”
George Lee added: “There is still an enormous problem with the condition of our local roads network and the severe winter weather, over the last few weeks, will exacerbate that problem and raise a range of new financial and operational challenges for councils and maintenance contractors.”
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association called for a “step change” in local roads funding. External affairs director Marie-Claude Hemming said: “Not only must we undertake urgent repairs to local roads, but the scale of the challenge is such that the Government must rethink how repairs and maintenance of this national asset are funded.
“To ensure there is sufficient finance for highways maintenance on our local roads, we have long proposed the wider use of prudential borrowing.”
Also commenting on the ALARM survey, CIHT’s director of policy and technical affairs Andrew Hugill said: “While there has been some welcome increase in funding available from DfT it is clear we need to look at wider solutions.
“Highways, streets and the value they bring to the economic, health and social wellbeing of all our communities needs to be recognised across Government. This isn’t just a transport issue, highways that work well enable our society to function properly and help create better places.
“Improving the condition of our public realm, including footways, drainage and lighting as well as carriageways allow people to use them more, whether they are using a vehicle or not.”