The common sense case for a ‘fix it first’ approach is strong, and now it seems policy makers are taking notice.
As the old proverb says, a stitch in time saves nine. It seems common sense to invest in keeping an asset in good repair before adding to it. Yet as the state of the nation’s roads shows, common sense seems to have been lacking when it comes to investing in highways infrastructure.
Highways England has a £15 billion budget for just three per cent of roads, set to rise to nearly £27 billion from 2020. The new Major Road Network Fund will add an additional £3 billion to the pot, but excludes maintenance work.
This focus on big road schemes ignores the evidence that packages of small scale interventions to improve walking, cycling and public transport links deliver much better value than massive new infrastructure, and with fewer problems of induced traffic and lasting environmental damage.
At the same time, the annual ALARM survey of local authorities on the state of the other 97 per cent of the network, including the roads people use every day, estimated there is a £9.2 billion repairs backlog across the UK. It found that almost a fifth (18 per cent) of roads are in a poor state of repair with each road only resurfaced on average once every 92 years.
When you include the state of bridges, the picture is even worse. The one-off cost of the total maintenance backlog for council-managed road bridges in Great Britain has now risen to £6.7 billion.
Severe weather episodes reflecting our changing climate have made the condition of roads worse, as has the growth in road freight. While motorways are built to a higher specification to cater for heavy lorries, the majority of local road infrastructure is not. Lorries cause far more damage to the foundations and structures of roads than cars.
And the impact is severe. It’s not just the financial cost to motorists and bus operators from delays and repairs. There’s a human cost from injuries and crashes too. The state of the road surface was cited as the main factor in nearly 600 road traffic accidents in 2016, 12 of them fatalities, and as a contributory factor in many more. Cycling UK reports that nearly 400 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the ten years from 2007-2017 due to potholes.
It’s no wonder that policy makers have started to ask some serious questions about the state of our roads: and we’ve been happy to share our fix it first approach with them.
Last year we gave evidence to the Welsh Assembly’s Economy Industry and Skills Committee inquiry on the state of roads in Wales. Their report concluded ‘The Committee is persuaded by Campaign for Better Transport’s argument that building new roads should be a last resort, and that maintaining the current road network - including active travel routes - should be the priority for a sustainable transport policy’.
Our Chief Executive Darren Shirley took the same message to the House of Commons Transport Committee in November when he gave evidence to the inquiry on local roads funding and governance. The Committee’s chair, Lilian Greenwood, said at the launch of the inquiry: “This plague of potholes represents a major headache for all of us. The consequences of a deteriorating local road network are significant – undermining local economic performance and resulting in direct costs to motorists, through damage to road vehicles. The safety of other road users, particularly cyclists, is compromised”.
Our message to policy makers is clear: We need to prioritise road maintenance rather than building new roads and commit more resources to ‘green retrofitting’ existing roads (new green bridges, cycle and pedestrian crossings, noise barriers and measures to reduce air pollution, such as lower speed limits) to help reduce their impact on the environment and local communities.
Poor maintenance is a costly problem for road users and a false economy for the public purse. With cash-strapped local authorities currently setting their budgets for the year ahead, we look to the Government to invest wisely in a fix it first approach.