One in six local roads in England and Wales will need to be repaired, or even closed, within the next five years, says this year’s Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey.
The cumulative effect of an ageing network, decades of underfunding, increased traffic and wetter winters has taken its toll, leaving 17% of all local roads in poor structural condition, with less than five years of life remaining.
The ALARM survey, which is produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), reports that local authorities need more than £12 billion to bring the network up to scratch.
The shortfall has remained largely unchanged for four years – and the gap between the amount councils received this year and the amount they say they need to keep carriageways in reasonable order is almost £730 million.
Alan Mackenzie, chairman of the AIA, said: “Local authority highway teams do not have enough resources to arrest the terminal decline in the condition of our local roads and the network is not resilient enough to meet the challenges ahead.”
Despite this, the AIA believes the efficiencies councils have achieved in recent years through adopting an asset management approach should be applauded.
“Working smarter, greater collaboration and improved communication are all contributing to their ability to do more with less – though, of course, there will come a point when there are no further efficiency savings to be found,” Mackenzie continued.
A large number of local authorities (England: 43%; London: 53%; Wales: 56%) say they have also been hit with unforeseen costs primarily as a result of structural failures caused by adverse weather and increased traffic, which have put additional pressure on resources.
Potholes continue to be major problem for fleets, with 90% of respondents to a recent Fleet News poll saying they had not seen any improvement in the state of roads in the UK despite more funding being allocated to pothole repairs.
The ALARM survey shows that the number of potholes filled over the past year has dropped again for the second successive year, but is still high at 1.7 million – one every 19 seconds.
“Potholes are a symptom of poorly maintained roads and can have a serious effect on road users but spending money fixing them in isolation, although essential, is wasteful,” said Mackenzie.
“The most efficient way to deal with our crumbling roads is to fix them properly and stop potholes forming in the first place.
“It is time we had a rethink about the future funding of our roads otherwise we will end up with a network that is just not fit for purpose.”
While the ALARM survey highlights a funding shortfall on local roads, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has called into the question the affordability and deliverability of improvements to the strategic road network.
It says the Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England need to take decisive action before the summer if they are to deliver optimal value from their Road Investment Strategy.
The first Road Investment Strategy, which covers the five years between April 2015 and March 2020, is an important step towards better long-term planning of England’s strategic road network.
But, the NAO says the speed with which it was put together has created risks to deliverability, affordability and value for money which could be carried forward into future road investment periods.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The department and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if they are to provide optimal value from the Road Investment Strategy.”
In 2013, the Government committed £11.4bn of capital funding to improving motorways and A-roads during road period 1 (2015-20), with £7.7bn for 112 major enhancement projects and other projects designed to, for example, promote cycling, improve air quality and encourage economic growth. The remainder was allocated to the renewal of the existing network.
The DfT planned the strategy in 17 months, in order to publish it before the May 2015 General Election.
As a result of this, the NAO claims that the DfT selected projects without knowing whether they would be the best value and 54 of the 112 projects are currently scheduled to start in 2019/20, which could cause significant disruption to motorists.
Highways England is also facing challenges in recruitment of staff to cope with the increased workload. It plans to procure contracts for 57 projects in 2017, compared to six in 2016, but is 19% below its target headcount for procurement and commercial specialists who are in high demand.
Gaps have been filled with consultants and interim staff, who cost on average three times more than permanent employees.
The Government road improvements company is now reviewing the portfolio of enhancement projects to improve value for money, and has so far identified 16 projects which present a risk.
Managing that risk could include revising project design, cancelling projects or delaying projects to enable further assessment of benefits. It has also developed options to bring forward the start dates of up to 10 projects and to delay up to 19 to reduce the number of projects due to start in 2019-20 to establish a smoother delivery profile and reduce disruption to the road network.
While this may mean that some stakeholder expectations are not met, value for money depends on the DfT and Highways England proceeding, in this and in future road periods, with a realistic and affordable plan, says the NAO.
Morse continued: “Highways England has been working to address the risks to deliverability, affordability and value for money that were present in 2015, but we are now nearly two years into the five-year road investment period.
“Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”
The NAO has recommended that the DfT and Highways England should agree an updated delivery plan for the remainder of the road period, including a clear statement setting out the impact of this updated plan on any work undertaken in the next road period.
Graham Cookson, chief economist at traffic data firm Inrix, said: “Delaying, or even worse cancelling, these road improvements will strip the economy of billions, hamper business efficiency dramatically, and waste drivers’ time and money.”
However, new research published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) suggests that road building is failing to tackle congestion.
The CPRE report claims that traffic was found to increase much more in road corridors with new schemes than background traffic in the surrounding area.
It says schemes completed eight to 20 years ago demonstrated a traffic increase of 47%, while traffic more than doubled in one scheme, and all new schemes put pressure on adjoining roads, while there were negligible reductions in journey times.
Ralph Smyth, head of infrastructure and legal at the CPRE, said: “We are seemingly stuck in an ideological traffic jam from which we cannot escape. Building ever bigger roads should be the last resort – not the default choice.”
However, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) labelled the report “misguided”.
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Only by ensuring a road network that is fit for use can the competitiveness and productivity of the UK be maintained.
“The UK needs transport infrastructure that meets the needs of UK people and businesses in the 21st century. Limiting our infrastructure’s ability to meet demand will result in more delays, more congestion, more pollution and unnecessary waste.”