The announcement of £1.2 billion in new funding for council road maintenance is very welcome: but it still remains a tiny proportion of what’s needed to catch up with the repairs backlog, let alone fund future maintenance.
Meanwhile new road building continues to receive over ten times more funding than maintaining our everyday roads: something needs to change.
Under-funding of road repairs causes multiple problems, affecting the quality of journeys for all road users, posing danger for cyclists, and increasing already severe problems from air pollution in stop-start traffic. Excitement about a pothole-spotting machine may be limited among road users who already see far too many potholes every day.
The Government’s latest announcement, neatly timed just ahead of National Pothole Day, identifies a list of funding pots for road repairs and safety measures, including some new money. The total £1.2 billion is very welcome, but it’s nothing like enough to solve the problem.
The Local Government Association reports that the current £12bn backlog of road repairs would already take councils more than a decade to clear. Neglecting road maintenance is a false economy: the Asphalt Industry Alliance points out that it is 20 times more expensive to carry out reactive maintenance than planned, preventative maintenance. But councils don’t have the funds to do it.
The disparity between the pothole fund and the huge budgets for new roads is dramatic: £15bn for Highways England through the Road Investment Strategy, plus billions more for new roads via Local Growth Funds and devolution deals. Yet all the additional traffic stimulated by those shiny new motorways and link roads will start and finish on local streets, making the pothole problem worse.
The Government has committed to ear-marking Vehicle Excise Duty and reserving it for road maintenance from 2020. The problem is that money will all be for Highways England, and not for local authorities who maintain 98% of the roads. Last year, an important report Major Roads for the Future, made the case that at least the 3,800 miles of local authority-controlled 'A' roads should get equal treatment with those run by Highways England.
As councils set their budgets, local communities face a stark choice between seeing roads left unrepaired or cutting other transport funding (including vital bus services) to fill the funding gap.
With local roads carrying growing volumes of freight, it’s adding insult to injury to expect local people, already suffering noise and pollution from traffic, to pay for the damage caused to their community’s streets. Londoners face a particular challenge as Government revenue funding for TfL’s work is coming to an end from 2018.
Redirecting some of the lavish funds allocated for new roads and using the money to bring existing local highways up to standard would be a smart move.
We advocate introducing a new local Road Repair and Renewals Fund to tackle the road and pavement maintenance backlog, with ring-fenced funding and incentives for investment and apprenticeships. This would complement the new training and technology being developed by the street works sector.
With the next Budget due on 8 March, there’s still time and even greater need for the Chancellor to do more.