Public satisfaction with the condition of the UK’s road network is at an all-time low, according to a group of MPs.
Only 30% of the public were satisfied with the condition of the roads and the speed and quality of repairs, a survey suggests, with the greatest problems in London and the South East, according to the Department for Transport (DfT).
Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee of public accounts, said: “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 committee says that the DfT’s “unpredictable and fluctuating budgets” for road maintenance over decades have put value for money at risk.
Hodge continued: “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.”
The committee claimed that 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.
“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,” said Hodge.
“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.”
The committee believes that routine maintenance is essential to deal with the 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,” said Hodge.
“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.”
The committee concluded that the DfT and the Highways Agency are making progress in improving the way in which road maintenance is carried out, but more needs to be done.
It said that the DfT’s piecemeal and stop-go approach to funding for road maintenance in recent decades has made it difficult for highways authorities to deliver maintenance cost-effectively, with 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.
In addition, too many highways authorities are not basing their road maintenance programmes on good information and planning and as a result public satisfaction with the condition of UK roads is at the lowest level since the survey assessing confidence began.
However, it said it did recognise that the DfT is seeking to make funding more stable and predictable, which should help highways authorities to plan maintenance works more effectively.
It recommends that the DfT should hold the new Highways Agency to account for delivering the improved value for money that should be achievable given the certainty that will be provided by the planned funding reforms.
It should also keep to the long-term budget allocations it has set out for local highway authorities to enable them and the supply chain to plan ahead confidently and efficiently.
Meanwhile, the DfT is funding a Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme, which reinforces the need for authorities to plan long-term preventative maintenance based on good information on the condition of the infrastructure.
It also encourages collaboration between highway authorities. For example, two thirds of local highway authorities have formed alliances with other authorities which have reduced their costs.
However, the committee says that not all local authorities have adopted good practice and the programme is not sufficiently targeted at assisting poor performing authorities.
For example, 45 local highway authorities had not completed an asset management plan setting out the state of their roads.