The RAC has called for reforms to councils' legal responsibilities on local roads after a major survey suggests it is a top priority for transport spending.
A poll of more than 1,500 drivers found local road upkeep to be the top transport spending priority for 30% of respondents, while a further 48% cite it as a top five priority.
In terms of local government spending, only education was given a higher priority with 46% placing it in the top spot while road maintenance came in second with 18%, ahead of social services and housing assistance.
In response to the findings from its annual Report on Motoring, the RAC has suggested councils' duty to maintain local roads needs to be bolstered and made more ‘prescriptive’ to reflect the public's priorities.
RAC chief engineer RAC David Bizley said councils were under a specific legal obligation to provide minimum standards in education and social services whereas 'their obligations to maintain roads are far less prescriptive'.
'It is therefore inevitable that expenditure is biased against investment in the likes of road maintenance where prescriptive legal obligations do not exist and councillors therefore do not face legal sanctions,' he added.
Mr Bizley continued: ‘This significant and damaging disconnection between what a large proportion of council tax payers want local government to spend their money on and where it is actually going is at least in part a result of the inconsistent way in which central government devolves spending decisions to local authorities.
‘While the RAC is generally supportive of devolving decisions on local roads to local authorities there needs to be a level playing field for this to work. This means legal obligations on councils need to be equally prescriptive – or non-prescriptive – for all types of expenditure.’
The Local Government Association (LGA) dismissed the calls for legal reforms and suggested more cash had to be provided.
Cllr Peter Box, transport spokesman for the LGA, said: 'It is impossible to compare repairing potholes with keeping children safe and caring for our elderly. With demand on these life and death services continuing to rise and funding from central government continuing to reduce, councils have little choice but to squeeze budgets for other services, such as maintaining our roads.
'Current funding levels mean councils are only able to keep pace with patching up our roads and filling potholes rather than carrying out more cost-effective and long-term improvements.
'Long-term and consistent investment in local road maintenance is desperately needed in the Spending Review to improve road conditions for motorists and cyclists.'
The survey also found half of drivers believe the road condition in their area has deteriorated in the past 12 months with just 10% claiming it has improved.
Of those who say roads are worse, almost all (99%) attributed it to potholes and general damage, while litter was a source of annoyance for 24%, and poor maintenance of verges for 21%.
The Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) has put the cost of returning English and Welsh local roads to a ‘reasonable condition’ at £12.16bn.