David Weeks, director of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, looks at the state of the UK's roads and urges the government to commit to increased funding for critically important maintenance
The 16th Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey1 published at the end of March, again paints a bleak picture of the state of our local road network. It found that one in five roads in England is in a poor condition, and the estimated time to catch up with the maintenance backlog remains at a depressing 11 years.
Furthermore, the current figure to bring our roads up to scratch and clear the backlog of work needed across England and Wales is a massive £10.65 billion. Shadow Transport Minister, John Woodcock MP recently valued the backlog at £13 billion. Clearly, that level of investment will not be forthcoming in the current economic climate, but the repercussions of not making some degree of investment are dire.
A valuable asset
The road network is a local authority’s single most valuable asset. All its other services for young and old, whether health, educational or environmental, depend on the road network, as does the area’s commerce and economy. Well maintained roads are critically important.
Yet year after year our roads have been blighted by a lack of funding and their crumbling condition became all too obvious in the early months of this year following a prolonged spell of snow and ice. Journalists negotiating newly developed potholes on their way into work immediately recognised a news story that would chime with local communities. The AIA’s press office was swamped with calls from the first working day in January through to the end of February. When the ALARM Survey 2011 published its findings at the end of March it was apparent that the media’s appetite for pothole stories was not yet satiated and the public wanted some action.
The Department for Transport did its bit by making £200 million of emergency funding available in two separate announcements, in February and March.
It was a popular decision, but one that came too late. Many local authorities expressed frustration that they could have worked more efficiently if the funding had been made in time for them to plan ahead, rather than having to react after the damage had been done.
Worse still is the context in which the additional funding was made. Only six months previously the outcome of the comprehensive spending review saw the central government allocation for local authority highway maintenance cut by a significant amount. While politicians claim that more funds are being made available than under the previous administration, the Local Government Association has done the sums. Using government figures to adjust for inflation, there has been a reduction of £356 million over the four-year period in real terms. Even maintaining the budget at existing levels would prove more cost-effective than cutting the budget and then topping it up later with emergency funding.
Reactive maintenance, simply plastering over the cracks, is not an efficient use of funds. Considering the value of the asset in question, even a small amount of investment would prove more beneficial than attempts to maintain cashflow.
The additional emergency funding was welcome, but it simply wasn’t enough.
According to local authorities, the additional damage caused to our roads by winter weather over the last two years was £762m, easily swallowing up the successive government's three £100m emergency fund allocations over the same period. Until the underlying problem is fixed, there is no alternative to continuing to throw good money after bad.
This year’s ALARM Survey revealed that three quarters of councils were unable to make good the damage caused at the beginning of 2010 by the time the snow fell again at the end of the year. So the ineffective circle of patch and catch up continues.
Extreme weather is not the cause of the appalling state of our roads: it is a symptom of their fragile condition after years of underfunding and lack of preventative maintenance. The element most damaging to road structure is water, which can seriously undermine the integrity of the underlying structural layers. So ensuring that the surface layer of a road is sealed and has a consistent surface is a vital part of the maintenance process. Cracks in the road surface are themselves often early warning signs of damage to the underlying layers; ignoring them might help cashflow temporarily but is simply storing up larger bills for the future.
Last year 29 per cent of road maintenance budgets was spent on reactive maintenance such as filling potholes. This is at least 20 times more expensive than planned preventative maintenance by resurfacing. Traditional pothole repairs cost an average of about £60 each, based on an average sized pothole of about one quarter of a square metre, whereas resurfacing costs in the region of £10 per square metre.
Additionally, reactive maintenance is rarely permanent, requiring repeated treatment, which is obviously more expensive in the longer term than well planned maintenance. Resurfacing the road with a good base and surface course will not require further expenditure for 10-20 years depending upon the level and nature of its traffic.
The clear message is that without a serious shift towards more regular planned structural maintenance, resurfacing, strengthening and reconstruction, our local roads are set to continue in a downward spiral of mounting costs and serious decline. The ALARM survey revealed that local authorities in England and Wales paid £19.3 million in road user compensation claims last year, and the equivalent of 178 years of staff time was spent dealing with them.
There is also a human side to the problem. Almost all the authorities that responded to the ALARM Survey believe there is a threat to road users’ safety from road maintenance under-funding. AA president Edmund King said: “Lack of preventative maintenance and harsh winter weather has clearly taken its toll with our members reporting a marked deterioration in road condition. We have to keep up the battle against this blight which damages cars and risks road safety.”
Potholes and crumbling surfaces are the most obvious problems for road users, in particular those on two wheels, but the factor most compromising to safety, and less obvious to drivers, is loss of skid resistance. This is severely compromised when roads become worn and lose their surface texture through lack of regular maintenance.
Making financial sense
The state of the local road network is also undermining the economy. Another recent survey2 revealed that poor road condition was costing small and medium sized businesses around £4.1 billion per year in lost productivity and increased costs such as damage to vehicles, as well as higher fuel bills resulting from congestion or diversions.
Furthermore crumbling roads squeeze local economies, which have been highlighted in government plans to rebuild stability and growth in the UK economy. In the same survey, more than two thirds of respondents stated that well maintained local roads are important to their business.
Local communities are significantly affected by poor road condition which, with 92 per cent of all passenger transport carried by road, is something the public cannot fail to notice. Road condition was revealed as influencing decisions that people make about where to buy a home, where to go for leisure trips and even visiting shopping centres.
The picture for central government reads clearly: money may be tight now but leaving the road maintenance underfunded and plastering over problems spells danger.
With the chancellor unveiling the second leg of the Growth Review this autumn, a clear commitment to increased funding for road maintenance will play a big part in boosting the economy. A change in approach is long overdue, and the sooner we start, the better.
1. The Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey is conducted by the Asphalt Industry Alliance and collects information from local authorities regarding frequency and standards of maintenance, funding and other related issues such as road safety. The information is collected confidentially and analysed independently.
2. The Economic Impact of Local Road Condition, AIA/YouGov, October 2010