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Why Britain’s local roads are in desperate need of maintenance

Mineral Products Association | Mineral Products Association

4 min read Partner content

Mineral Products Association Asphalt Director Malcolm Simms describes how vulnerable road users are being put at risk by deteriorating conditions and a legacy of under-funding.

Leaving roads in disrepair can be lethal. For example, cyclists who hit potholes have been thrown into oncoming traffic and cars sometimes swerve to avoid potholes, which may cause accidents. The Mineral Products Association (MPA) is keen to draw attention to the threat posed by substandard road conditions to vulnerable road users, such as cyclists, as well as the wider impact on individuals and businesses.  

“Poor road maintenance can be highly dangerous and have very severe and tragic consequences”, according to MPA Asphalt Director Malcolm Simms.    

The current challenges are the result of decades of underfunding by successive governments, and are exacerbated by the funding structures imposed on councils, Mr Simms says.

“Local authorities receive a funding pot from central government, a proportion of which is identified for highways maintenance. Now none of that funding is ring-fenced particularly for highways maintenance. So, it comes under, as all funding pots to local authorities do, pressure from other services – health, education, and elements of transport all get drawn from the same central pot.

“But in fact all of those other services rely on the highway to a greater or lesser extent to be delivered. You’ve got to get kids to school, some parents drive them there and even if you are running buses to schools they need to run on the road. Shops and businesses all rely on door-to-door delivery.”

Whilst he accepts that local government has to make tough decisions, he would like to see changes that would allow councils to make longer-term investments.

A recent survey done by MPA Asphalt identified £12bn worth of maintenance that is needed to improve the UK’s roads and found that local authorities in England faced an average budget shortfall of over £5m every year.

“Clearly significant levels of funding need to be found to deliver the improvement in the network… So, at a central government level we need the commitment in funding into local authority highways maintenance.

“We know it is not popular, we know it is not a political buzzword at the minute, but if that funding was ring-fenced specifically for that purpose then there is more chance that local authorities would be able to identify their budgets to plan their workload and deliver more efficiently and probably more cost-effectively,” Mr Simms says.

He suggests that the current approach of “simply filling in potholes” does not address the root causes of disrepair and can be more costly in the long-run.

“Potholes are an indicator of a problem; they are not the problem in themselves. Because authorities have been underfunded, their focus is to deal with the worst things first, to deal with the dangerous situation that a pothole can create at lowest cost. That’s not necessarily one of the best ways to spend the money, it is one of the least efficient ways to spend the money…

“We want them to consider resurfacing the entire stretch of road. On a square metre basis resurfacing can be 20 times more cost-effective than filling the potholes in because you have got to mobilise the same number of people to do the work. So, it may cost a little bit more upfront but then you get the longer-term benefits that having a road in good condition can deliver.”

Both local and national government is engaged with the issues, according to Mr Simms, who praises the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Highway Maintenance, which promotes the country’s road network on the national stage.

However, he is somewhat disappointed with the 2015 Infrastructure Act.

“In terms of the highlights, what the Infrastructure Act has enabled is the creation of Highways England, but they are only dealing with the high-speed motorway network, and what the act has enabled them to do is identify and secure long-term funding. So, Highways England is being funded in excess of £20bn until 2021.

“So, they are then able to plan major projects and their maintenance works throughout that period with certainty of funding rather than relying on government decisions year-on-year from each budget. They have the continuity of funding to be able to do that. Local highway maintenance sits outside the Infrastructure Act. It still sits in the general funding for Local Authorities, so it’s a shame that that element of funding wasn’t drawn into the Infrastructure Act as well.”

As Mr Simms acknowledges it may not be the most glamorous of political issues, but if the recommendations made by MPA Asphalt are taken on board, it will reduce the threat to vulnerable road users and help prevent tragic fatalities and injuries which result from poor road condition. 

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