Public satisfaction with the condition of UK roads is at an all time low, according to a report carried out by the Government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The committee has published its report into maintenance of strategic infrastructure, concentrating on roads.
The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today (25 September 2014) said: “Public satisfaction with the condition of our roads is at the lowest level since the surveying of this began in 2008. In the last survey only 30% of the public were satisfied with the condition of the roads and the speed and quality of repairs. The greatest problems are in London and the South East, according to the Department for Transport.
“The Department’s piecemeal and stop-go approach to funding for road maintenance in recent decades has made it difficult for highways authorities to maintain roads cost-effectively. There has been too much reactive work in response to flooding and other events and not enough focus on preventative work that is less expensive in the long-term.
“The Department’s unpredictable and fluctuating budgets for road maintenance over decades have put value for money at risk. It seems ludicrous that in 2010 the Department cut road maintenance budgets by £1.2 billion over the four years from April 2011, but then it has intermittently given £1.1 billion additional funding on nine separate occasions for various reasons, including in response to flooding or winter damage to the roads.
“The Department must see that prevention is better than cure. It costs £52 to fill in a pothole, or £70 in London, yet it costs over £30 million to pay and process compensation claims from road users for damages arising from poor road conditions.
She continued: “Infrastructure UK has said that savings of 10-20% are associated with certainty of funding, and the Department says it is taking steps to make its funding more certain in the future.
“Whilst we understand the unpredictable nature of winter weather, too much road maintenance is inefficient because it is reactive and unplanned. Concentrating activity in the winter months is inefficient and costly. Some local highway authorities are far too reactive to events, rather than anticipating, predicting and preventing disrepair.
“Routine maintenance is essential to deal with increasingly frequent severe weather and to prevent long-term damage to infrastructure, but a fall in the proportion of revenue funding to capital funding risks a reduction in this type of maintenance.
“A good understanding of the state of the roads is absolutely essential for planning cost-effective preventative maintenance. Yet, there are too many gaps in highways authorities’ information about what road infrastructure assets they have and what condition they are in. The Highway’s Agency holds no information on 70% of its drainage systems, for example.
“Better information, better planning of funding and a pro-active stance on maintenance are what the Department must promote to have a chance of pleasing unhappy road users.”
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 15th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport and Graham Dalton, Chief Executive, Highways Agency, examined the issue of strategic road infrastructure.
The committee sets out a number of conclusions and recommendations in the report. To read it in full click here.
Responding to the report, Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) chairman Alan Mackenzie said: “After many years of chronic underfunding, the local road network is in a parlous state and in desperate need of further up-front investment, which would enable local authorities to commission more planned preventative maintenance.
“We welcome this report and agree that more should be done to encourage a greater focus on planned preventative road maintenance, which is not only more cost-efficient in the long-term (reactive maintenance is 20 times more expensive on a per square metre basis than preventative maintenance), but also helps prevent potholes appearing and can extend the working life of those roads.
“The AIA has been campaigning for additional up-front funding and longer term funding certainty for local authorities, aligned to greater development and use of highways asset management plans, and we are pleased to see these highlighted in the PAC report.”
Paul Fleetham, managing director of Lafarge Tarmac Contracting, commented: “I welcome the findings in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report. It is good to see that the importance of UK road infrastructure continues to be firmly on the political agenda.
“While the report recommends that more highways funding for councils should be conditional on their efficiency programmes and asset management, these measures are not the silver bullet for local authorities and contractors to tackle a deteriorating asset suffering from years of under-funding.
“It is essential that the government keeps to its promise to deliver a major six-year road funding programme from spring 2015 so that road authorities can plan long-term maintenance programmes with greater certainty. I would also like to see the government follow through on the report’s recommendation for the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to examine the cumulative impact of their combined funding decisions on road maintenance.”
Surrey County Council’s cabinet member for highways, John Furey, said: “The Public Accounts Committee is right to highlight the inadequacy of Whitehall funding for councils and the need to be efficient and avoid short-term fixes. Here in Surrey, we face Whitehall funding shortfalls of £60m for highways and £215m for school places demand over the next five years. Therefore, increasing efficiency is essential alongside adequate funding.
“From 2012 we decided to plan road repairs five years in advance as standard to improve the service for Surrey residents and continue to drive our £32bn economy. So far, we have identified £15m savings through better planning and contracts.
“In one year alone, our programme to make 300 miles of Surrey roads pothole-proof for 10 years has overhauled the equivalent distance from London to Southampton and saved £4m that will go back into repairs.
“However, it is continually getting harder for us to deliver the services our residents need as demand in areas like adult social care and school places rises dramatically and Whitehall falls short of what we need.”