The 21st Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey has found councils successfully working 'smarter with less money', with the overall cost of the repair backlog across England and Wales falling to £11.8bn from £12.2bn last year.
However industry insiders suggest ‘further decline lies ahead’ and clearing the total backlog remains ‘out of reach for most local authorities’.
Per authority in England there is an £88.8m estimated one time cost to get roads back into ‘reasonable’ condition and a 14-year time horizon needed to clear the repair backlog.
The survey also found that of the 56% of councils across England and Wales that responded, only 3% places themselves in the highest Band 3 for the Department for Transport’s £578m Incentive Fund self-assessment process for 2016-2017. Whereas, 16% of authorities place themselves in Band 1 and 81% place themselves in Band 2.
Band 1 councils are due to lose 10% of their Incentive Fund share in 2016-2017, and all councils will lose out if they don’t reach Band 3 by 2017-2018.
The independent report, commissioned by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) – which represents suppliers of raw materials used to produce asphalt - found the indicated total highways maintenance budget for England and Wales fell by around 10% to £2.8bn from £3.1bn in 2014-2015.
This resulted in an overall increase in the annual shortfall per authority – the amount deemed necessary to keep the highway in ‘reasonable order’ – of almost 50% from £3.2m to £4.6m in 2015-2016.
And the amount spent on structural maintenance, that is the carriageway itself, recorded a drop in both England and Wales. This was indicated to be ‘because more funds are being used for capital works such as the construction of cycle paths or junction improvements’ the report found.
Councils indicated there was a 20% fall in the total structural maintenance expenditure across England and Wales in 2015-16, from £1.5bn compared to £1.8bn in 2014-2015.
However councils have coped well with the funding difficulties, something Alan Mackenzie, chairman of the AIA, attributed in large part to the uptake of asset management plans as recommended by the government-sponsored Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP).
More than three quarters (78%) of authorities have completed a Highway Asset Management Plan and had it approved by the council.
The vast majority of local authorities in England (98%) are participating in the HMEP, while Wales is developing its own approach, the survey found.
This has seen the amount spent on reactive maintenance – unplanned work, often to tackle potholes – remain fairly consistent with the English average at 22% compared to 23% last year and the Welsh showing no change at 34%.
‘The total estimated cost for road user compensation claims [for damage to persons or vehicles as a result of poor road condition] of £28.4m (down 30% from £40.8m last year) is split between £13.5m on compensation and £14.9m on staff costs,’ ALARM found.
The report also states: 'A significant, proportion of local authorities in England and London (36% and 42% respectively) reported that they anticipated increasing opportunities to collaborate with Highways England to deliver maintenance activities.'
Chairman of the AIA, Alan Mackenzie, said the indicative results of the self-assessment process showed that ‘there is a significant challenge ahead and some do not think they have the resources to achieve’ [Band 3].
He added that: ‘Local authorities continue to face increasing pressures on resources but now have better processes and a more focused preventative approach.
‘However roads are deteriorating at a faster rate than they can be repaired and more significant problems for the future are building unseen below the surface.’
Cllr Peter Box, transport spokesman at the Local Government Association, said: ‘Councils fixed a pothole every 15 seconds again last year despite significant budget reductions leaving them with less to spend on fixing our crumbling roads. Local authorities are proving remarkably efficient in how they use this diminishing funding pot but they remain trapped in a frustrating cycle that will only ever leave them able to patch up our deteriorating roads.
'Councils share the frustration of motorists having to pay to drive on roads that are often inadequate. Our polling shows that 83% of the population would support a small amount of the existing billions they pay the Treasury each year in fuel duty being reinvested to help councils bring our roads up to scratch.
‘Councils desperately need long-term and consistent funding to invest in the resurfacing projects which our road network desperately needs over the next decade.’