ALARM bells ringing: Highways industry calls for radical change

 

Industry figures have called for a radical re-think of highways maintenance funding and techniques after the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey this year showed the backlog for local roads maintenance has increased once again.

Based on council estimates, the cost of bringing the local road network for England and Wales up to scratch has increased to £12.16bn from £12bn last year – an average of £71m per authority, £93m in England, £25.2m in London and £29.4m in Wales.

Former president of ADEPT and director of public services at Mouchel, Matthew Lugg, told Transport Network the time had come to consider taking local roads out of council hands.

‘We should think about a different way of funding roads. We could take it away from local councils because they provide such a mixed economy. Why can’t we look at the utility model?

‘The government could draw up regional areas and take them to market and use hypothecated fuel tax to provide them with a funding stream. They would operate under a regulator of course and would have more ability to provide investment in the asset.’

Produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, the ALARM survey received responses from 52% of highways authorities in England and Wales.

AIA chairman, Alan MacKenzie, accused the Government of exacerbating the problem by providing pothole repair and emergency cash rather than funding for permanent structural repairs – effectively wasting millions of pounds.

One in six roads were classified as being in poor condition – defined as a road having less than years of life left – constituting a ‘small but significant reduction’ on last year the report states. All areas showed a reduction in on last year, with the average at 16% now.

Other positives from the report included councils seeing their average annual budget shortfall drop by 24% from 4.2m in 2014 to 3.2m this year and 85% of responding councils had long-term asset management plans.

Chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association, Howard Robinson, agreed ‘the way we fund we fund the road network needs to be reconsidered’, highlighting it would be almost impossible to tackle the backlog under the current system.

He added engineering techniques had added to the problem, suggesting that cost savings and a desire for quieter roads had prompted a switch to less durable materials.

‘The reality is 20 years ago we saw stone mastic asphalt (SMA), thin course surfacing and asphalt overlays replace hot rolled asphalt (HRA) and chippings. HRA is rolled to 50mm thick and is very dense. SMA is around half that and has a lot less binder so you could say it is basically semi-porous.

‘HRA has a life span of around 15-20 years, SMA and thin surfacing is now where near. If you think about the weather in England and the damage water ingress can do to a highways you have to ask are these new asphalts fit for purpose.’

A spokesman for the AIA agreed this was an issue said they would welcome greater standardisation of local authority asphalt specifications, suggesting the number could be brought down by around 90% to reach roughly 20.

The amount paid in compensation claims in England – excluding London - doubled over the last year to £20.2m despite the number of claims staying fairly stable.

Cllr Peter Box, transport spokesman at the Local Government Association, said: 'Patching up our crumbling road network is simply not the answer to tackle the roads crisis we face as a country.

'Councils need billions, not millions, to bring our roads up to scratch. Every mile of motorways and trunk roads will receive £1.4m funding over the next six years compared with £31,000 per mile for local roads. This makes little sense given the Government's own traffic projections predict an increase in local traffic of more than 40 per cent by 2040.

'Long-term and consistent investment in local road maintenance is desperately needed to allow councils to embark on a widespread improvement of our roads.

'We are calling for whoever forms the next Government to fund this by injecting a further £1 billion a year into roads maintenance by investing the equivalent of just two pence per litre of existing fuel duty.'

The news comes after the latest official figures suggest highways authorities have prioritised maintenance on key roads since the recession and in doing so have managed to improve or at least maintain their standards, despite funding cuts and skills shortages.

However the percentage of unclassified roads needing maintenance has slowly increased since 2007 rising from 15% to 18% in 2012/13 although they were held at that level last year.

 

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