Time to fill the pothole funding gap
Following a recent report from the APPG for Better Roads, the Mineral Products Association makes the case for ringfencing pothole funding.
Potholes are a blight on our roads. They are the result of underfunded, poorly maintained roads and can be the cause of accidents and damage to vehicles, as well being a source of immense frustration for people across the country.
This frustration is entirely justified, not least because the situation is getting worse. Only 50 per cent of the local road network in England is now classified as being in a good structural condition. That’s the equivalent of 5 per cent of the total local network being downgraded since 2021 – or more than 8,800 miles of local road.
What’s gone wrong? It’s true that changes to our weather in recent years, combined with the rise of heavier SUVs and electric cars, as well as more delivery vans, seems to have increased the wear and tear on roads not designed for this type of traffic.
However, a new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Better Roads points to a simpler answer: we’re allowing more potholes to form in the first place, and our roads to deteriorate, because the money isn’t there.
The Government would point out that they have supplied the cash. In 2020, the then Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a £500 million per year Potholes Fund, which he claimed would be enough to fill 50 million potholes by the end of this Parliament. Earlier this year, Jeremy Hunt grew the Fund to £700 million per year, and following the cancellation of HS2, the Prime Minister appears to have committed £8.3 billion.
The Prime Minister’s announcement is a very large sum of money that could make a significant impact on the backlog of maintenance. But there is a history of announced pothole funding making no appreciable difference to the road surfaces we all drive on.
The problem is that the current funding is not ringfenced. Unlike the previous Pothole Action Fund, which closed in 2021, the current potholes fund is not specifically earmarked for use in local road maintenance. There is now only a ‘strong expectation’ from Government that local authorities will spend this money on roads. New funding coming from HS2’s cancellation must be ringfenced if it is going to make a difference in reality.
All too often, it seems that cash-strapped councils have also redirected central Government ‘pothole’ funding to other areas. The Local Government Association has reported that overall highways maintenance funding allocated from the Department for Transport to local authorities dropped by 20%, from £1.78 billion in 2020/21 to just £1.39 billion in 2021/22. Losing the firm ringfence of the Pothole Action Fund alongside overall reductions means that it's no surprise that we find ourselves with more potholes, and our roads generally in a worse structural condition, just two years later.
The irony is that well-kept local roads are good for the local economy. They allow for more reliable and energy-efficient journeys, and keep communities connected. Preventative maintenance also costs much less than emergency repair work after a pothole has formed, as well as being a more sustainable use of materials. According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance’s Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey reports, the overall cost of bringing the local road network in England back up to a condition from which it could be most cost-effectively maintained has ballooned since ringfencing ended, from £8.7 billion to over £12 billion.
There’s also the economic consequences of the roads being in poorer condition. The RAC Pothole Index reports that, in the period from June 2022 to June 2023, the number of breakdowns where vehicles had been damaged by a pothole was 20% higher than in the period from June 2021 to June 2022. In addition, this is borne out by the increase reported in the amount English local authorities paid out and spent dealing with compensation claims. ALARM 2023 highlighted that this is up 23% since 2021, from £12.5 million to £15.4 million.
The Government has made headlines by committing hundreds of millions of pounds to potholes and road maintenance, but it’s essential that people see that funding translated into better roads. It’s time for ministers to bring back ringfencing.
When the ringfenced Pothole Action Fund was in place, from 2015 to 2021, it delivered results. The percentage of local roads in good condition increased from 48% in 2016 to 55% in 2021, which equates to over 12,000 miles of better roads. The overall cost of bringing the network up to an acceptable also level decreased. The average in-year shortfall in local authorities’ road maintenance budgets dropped by 21%, only to almost double in the two years after ringfencing was abolished.
Ringfencing also gave councils the certainty they needed to get ahead of the curve and shift towards more cost-effective preventative work.
For example, in 2017-18, Norfolk County Council spent 65% of its Pothole Action Fund grant on patching and pothole repair. By the following year, having addressed the most severe defects in its road network, it was able to devote the majority of its grant to resurfacing, making the network more resilient and preventing potholes from forming in the first place.
The evidence in the APPG report is clear: ringfencing works. It ensures that Government funding for road maintenance actually goes towards road maintenance. Therefore, the APPG is calling on the Government to reform its existing potholes fund into a ringfenced ‘Better Roads Fund’, with the same clear rules around transparency of delivery of investment that were in place under the old Pothole Action Fund.
The new fund should also have five-year funding windows, as National Highways does for the strategic road network (SRN) via the Road Investment Strategy (RIS) periods. This would give local highways departments at least one secure stream of funding, and help enable them to plan ahead, improve conditions, and shift their focus to planned preventative maintenance, rather than constantly playing an expensive game of pothole catch-up.
The Pothole Action Fund had started to address the poor state of this country’s roads, but since 2021 the Government has stopped making sure that the money it specifically allocates to address what Grant Shapps has called the “plague of potholes” actually gets spent on effective road maintenance. It’s time to reinstate this common sense requirement and get back to making our roads safer for all users.
The APPG report was researched and funded by the members of the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) and the Institute of Highways Engineers (IHE), which support the APPG for Better Roads.
The AIA is a partnership between the Mineral Products Association (MPA) and Eurobitume UK and was established in 2000 to increase awareness of the asphalt industry and its activities, and the uses and benefits of asphalt. The IHE is the UK’s leading highway professionals’ institute.
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