A new report from the UK, echoing the issues in the US … Driven to disrepair? England’s roads under pressure from traffic, weather, spiralling costs and budget cuts – Audit Commission:
England’s 236,000 miles of local roads – used by 30 million drivers every day – are under attack from increasing traffic, severe winters, higher repair costs, and dwindling highways funding.
The challenges faced by the country’s 152 council highways authorities are the subject of a new Audit Commission reportGoing the Distance: Achieving better value for money in road maintenance.
The report highlights how councils can get more for their money, including cost-saving collaborations with neighbours, asset management to show when road maintenance will be most effective, new ways of keeping residents informed, and weighing short-term repairs against long-term resilience.
Between them, council highways authorities are responsible for 98 per cent of the country’s roads*, spending a total of £2.3 billion in 2009/10. Yet, in response to increasing financial pressure on councils, highways budgets are facing significant cuts.
The Commission has found that the cost of maintaining roads is now 50 per cent higher than it was ten years ago, in part due to inflation in road materials and construction costs. Other pressures facing councils are:
- Road traffic is expected to increase by more than 30 per cent by 2025;
- In the next three years there will be a 26 per cent drop in government revenue funding and 16 per less capital funding via local transport plans;
- Damage by utilities works costs nearly £50 million every year.**
Councils must also strike a difficult balance. Public perceptions of whether roads are in good shape are often only skin deep, so potholes and patchworks attract the most criticism. But dealing with these so-called ‘worst first’ surface issues must be weighed against prolonging a road’s ‘whole life’ before it is too late.
Chairman of the Audit Commission, Michael O’Higgins says:
‘Prevention is better than cure, but councils have to consider the safety and insurance risks of damaged surfaces. Roads costs are rising while councils’ belts are tightening. Improvement in A roads seems to have stalled, and the road network overall is starting to deteriorate.’
In cash terms, its road network is a council’s single most valuable asset. Yet councils struggle to apply asset management principles to roads. They cannot be sold, they don’t generate income, indeed they consume large resources. Hardly surprising that some councils see roads as liabilities rather than assets.
But the report urges councils to consider asset management plans, such as Cornwall’s Transport Asset Management Plan (TAMP), which for an investment of £80,000 is driving consistent levels of service and road condition across the whole county. Such plans also indicate when best to intervene with works to extend the whole life of a road, typically a maximum of only 20 years.
The study team found that collaboration pays real dividends. The Midlands Highway Alliance estimates it has delivered £5.1 million savings for councils and £7.8 million for the Highways Agency in its first three years, and it is looking to a further £14 million of savings between 2010 and 2014. Ten authorities in the East of England have also formed an alliance to save £6m over five years, with £3.3 million from shared back office costs alone.
Michael O’Higgins says:
‘Sadly we found collaboration between councils to be rare, with too few councils procuring in cost-saving partnerships.’
‘Pick up any local newspaper and you will see that people care very much about their local roads. In the last national Place Survey, roads were a higher priority with residents than crime or affordable housing. Our report aims to help councillors maintain their local network against a backdrop of reduced funding. Roads in disrepair can put the brakes on trade, economic prosperity, even emergency services. But a well-maintained network helps people, goods and services to move freely and safely.’
I am not convinced about the rising traffic, but the revenue issue and continued aging of infrastructure are quite real.