Nation's roads at the mercy of the weather
LGA media release 19 June 2013
Swathes of Britain's local road network could become unusable should there be more flooding or another severe winter this year, highways bosses are warning.
As well as frustrating motorists, the nation's crumbling carriageways are also undermining economic recovery and costing small businesses £5 billion a year. Without extra Government funding to pay for desperately-needed resurfacing more severe weather could bring parts of the country to its knees.
Last year council highways teams fixed 2.2 million potholes, 500,000 more than the year before. However, despite these efforts the backlog of repairs is growing longer, now estimated at £10.5 billion with one in five roads classed as being in ‘poor condition'.
Alongside decades of underinvestment from Government, the key factor is recent freezing weather and flooding which has caused an estimated £1 billion damage. Further severe weather could now lead to a tipping point in many areas where roads will become so damaged they will have to close.
The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils across England and Wales, is calling on Government to provide greater capital funding for road maintenance to turn around the spiralling decline. It has written to Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, asking him to begin this process in next week's Spending Round.
This will not only allow councils to make roads safer and save billions of pounds in the long term – reactive repairs are 20 times more expensive than laying a good quality surface resistant to flood and ice damage – but also boost jobs and growth in the short-term.
Council spending on road maintenance has consistently been twice what the Department for Transport gives them to cover the cost, the remainder having to be made up from their own general budget. This arrangement has barely covered ongoing upkeep and even this is now at risk because of a 19 per cent cut to the DfT grant and the 33 per cent cut to general funding.
The average English council was about £6.2 million short of what it needed to properly maintain its roads last year, up from £5.3 million in 2011. Compounding matters is the growing cost of compensation to drivers whose vehicles get damaged by potholes. Councils paid out £32 million, 50 per cent more than 2011.
A study undertaken by Transport Scotland demonstrated that for every £1 reduction in road maintenance there is a cost of £1.50 to the wider economy, and last year the Audit Commission warned Whitehall that cutting local highways funding could increase government costs in the long term.
A YouGov survey from January showed the average cost to SMEs of poor roads was £13,600 a year in reduced productivity, increased fuel consumption, damage to vehicles and delayed deliveries. This equates to £5 billion across the sector. A separate survey by the Federation of Small Business found half of its respondents had lost up to £5,000 a year, with 12 per cent losing up to £20,000. And in the latest CBI Infrastructure Survey a top concern was the state of the local road network.
Cllr Peter Box, Chair of the LGA's Economy and Transport Board, said:
"The case for proper funding to resurface our roads is a no-brainer. The short-termist approach of successive Governments of underfunding local road maintenance, coupled with severe weather over recent years, has taken its toll. Now we're facing unprecedented budget cuts things are only getting worse, something plain for all drivers to see.
"Despite their best efforts, many councils are trapped in a false economy of reactive repairs while managing a spiralling compensation bill, all the time praying it doesn't flood or freeze. Government cutting funding for roads is a very high-risk strategy, as the longer you keep simply patching up a deteriorating surface the more vulnerable it becomes to severe weather. Unless something changes, we risk swathes of Britain's road network becoming dangerously strewn with potholes or collapsing completely.
"Councils need increased and consistent funding to invest in the widespread resurfacing projects which our network desperately needs if we're to see a long-term improvement. Notions that this can be paid for by council efficiency savings and smarter use of money are deeply unrealistic. We know we're in very tough economic times, but there are several potential sources of funding Government could explore.
"Redirecting funding into road resurfacing would also offer an instant boost to growth. Thousands of jobs in the construction and supply sector would be created immediately and there would be many mid-term economic benefits by reducing the cost to business caused by the current state of many roads."
Despite severe funding cuts, councils across the country are striving to make the most of their diminished budgets. Examples include:
Kent County Council's highways team 'blitzed' more than 2,000 potholes during February, and an extra £1.15 million has been invested in the county's roads to help prevent more emerging. Crews will now be carrying out six times more work following the launch of ‘Find and Fix 2013' in March, and will tackle every fault they find rather than just those that are safety-related. Kent's crews have also nearly halved the time taken to fix a pothole once it's been identified from an average of 25 days in 2011 to just 14 days last year.
Staffordshire County Council invested £500,000 as part of a 'blitz' to repair potholes caused by the harsh winter. Crews tackled up to 400 per week between February and May – a 55 per cent increase on the same time last year – filling about 5,800.
Nottinghamshire County Council is investing an extra £1 million on repairing the county's road network in 2013/14 after the public said highway improvements were their top priority. The extra money will fund the repair of at least 5,000 extra potholes across the county, in addition to the 36,000 pothole repairs already made each year. Investment in new techniques and materials will ensure the repairs are of lasting, high quality.
Oldham Council has a new ‘Jetpatcher' which is tackling potholes and improving the road network in a more effective and efficient way. The high-powered equipment, works by forcing the material into the pothole under high pressure, is cheaper than traditional methods and reduces disruption to traffic. It enables teams to undertake more repair work on each job and provide a ‘right first time fix'.
At the end of January, Croydon Council announced a new £100,000 winter pothole fund to support work to repair potholes caused by the snow and ice. Highways teams inspected the borough's 2,500 roads to locate and fill in any new potholes. It encouraged residents to let them know about problem areas. This year it is investing nearly £8.5 million in improving the condition of its roads.
Notes to editors
1. Potential sources of funding which could be spent on road resurfacing: In the March 2013 budget the Chancellor announced a £3 billion increase in capital expenditure for large infrastructure projects such as new roads and rail improvements.
Last year, the Treasury announced Whitehall departments spent about £6.7 billion less than expected during 2011/12. The Department for Transport reportedly underspent by about £500 million. There was also a £2.34 billion capital underspend on infrastructure projects across government.
Danny Alexander has also asked each government department to set aside cash reserves worth five per cent of their budgets, or identify programmes that can be cut to provide the money, to pay for new initiatives or deal with unforeseen events. For the Department for Transport this would be about £650 million.
2. Councils are receiving £3 billion from Government for highways maintenance between 2011 and 2015. This is the accumulation of the annual highways maintenance budget and is £442 million less than councils would have received over the same period based on 2010/11 funding levels. By 2014/15 the highways maintenance budget will be £164 million a year less than in 2010/11, a 19 per cent drop.
The breakdown of Department for Transport cuts to councils' annual highways maintenance budget is:
2010/11: £871 million
2011/12: £806 million
2012/13: £779 million
2013/14: £750 million
2014/15: £707 million.
3. Regular and widespread flooding in 2012 caused an estimated £338 million damage to roads, making some carriageways collapse entirely. Government gave councils £215 million in December to help cover the cost.
4. The severe winter of 2010/11 cost councils an estimated £600 million in road damage. Government gave councils £200 million to help mitigate the damage.
5. Figures on potholes, annual budget shortfalls and compensation based on the Aspahlt Industry Alliance's 2013 ALARM survey.
6. To see the YouGov survey visit – www.asphaltindustryalliance.com/news-press.asp?info=YouGov&start=0
7. To see the CBI survey visit – www.cbi.org.uk/business-issues/infrastructure/infrastructure-survey/infrastructure-survey-2012/
8. To see the FSB's ‘Voice of Small Business' survey visit – www.fsb.org.uk/News.aspx?loc=pressroom&rec=7291.
9. To see the Audit Commission's report ‘Going the Distance' visit – www.audit-commission.gov.uk/2011/05/going-the-distance-achieving-better-value-for-money-in-road-maintenance/
10. Highways authorities (upper-tier councils) are responsible for nine out of every 10 miles of road – about 225,000 miles throughout the UK. England and Wales has 174 highways authorities. The Highways Agency is responsible for motorways and major A roads, while Transport for London is responsible for arterial trunk roads in London.
Ben Knowles, Senior Media Relations Officer
Local Government Association
Telephone: 020 7664 3252
19 June 2013