The time needed to clear the repair backlog on local authority roads in England and Wales has fallen from 14 years to 12 years, with councils spending more money on highways structural maintenance.
However, the estimated one-time cost of bringing roads up to a ‘reasonable’ condition has risen to £12.06bn from £11.8bn last year.
The figures come in the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey, published by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA). This year’s survey had an increased response rate, with 63% of authorities responding, up from 56% a year ago.
AIA chairman Alan Mackenzie pointed out that, although the number of roads in England and Wales classed as ‘good’ has increased, so has the number of those classed as ‘poor’. This means that one in six roads may need to be replaced in the next five years.
He said: ‘This is clearly not sustainable in the long-term and many highway engineers have warned of a tipping point ahead.’
Mr Mackenzie added: ‘The message from the research, which informs ALARM, is that highway teams simply do not have enough money to arrest the terminal decline in the condition of our local roads and the network is not resilient enough to meet the challenges ahead.
‘As a result, cash-strapped highway teams have to prioritise maintenance activity, with a disastrous effect on overall road condition.’
According to the survey, the average highway maintenance budget per authority increased from £16.2m in 2015/16 to £17.1m in 2016/17. With councils spending more (58%) of this budget on ‘structural’ carriageway maintenance in 2016/17, average structural maintenance spending rose to £9.9m from £8.4m the previous year.
Similarly, the total shortfall in the annual carriageway maintenance budget – the difference between actual spending and what councils said they needed to spend – fell from £791m to £730m.
This increase in annual spending may be behind in the fall in the projected time needed to clear the backlog of repairs to local authority roads, although AIA director Malcolm Simms told Transport Network that the fall may result from the efficiencies being achieved by local authorities, despite having to do more work.
He said: ‘By doing it more efficiently, it may be done in less time.’
While the estimated time to clear the backlog in England outside London fell from 14 to 13 years, the figure for London roads showed a more significant fall, from 16 years in the 2016 survey to 10 years today. This appears to reflect an increase in structural maintenance spending, with London authorities spending an increased proportion (56%) of overall highway maintenance budgets on maintaining the carriageway.
Councils in Wales reported an increase in the time needed to clear the backlog to nine years, up from seven years in the previous survey.
The increase to £12.06bn in the estimated one-time catch-up cost for local authority roads follows a fall in last year’s figure of £11.8bn from £12.2bn a year earlier.
Mr Simms told Transport Network that the increase may reflect inflation in the industry. Local authorities are asked each year what it would cost to clear the backlog, based on current costs.
An advisor to the Department for Transport (DfT) and director of public services at Mouchel, part of WSP Global Inc, Matthew Lugg told Transport Network that from conversations with local authorities ‘I hear there is a lot of inflation in the industry’, which would naturally affect the backlog cost measurement. He also suggested there was a need for greater standardisation between authorities when it came to measuring the backlog.
The survey also reveals that councils again spent less money filling potholes. The total spent by English and Welsh authorities on filling potholes fell to £102m from £118m in 2015/16, with 1.75 million potholes filled (10,410 per authority), compared to 2,190,026 (12,807 per authority).
The fall in spending on potholes comes despite the Government’s creation of a £250m pothole fund from 2016/17, suggesting that councils are spending money on longer-term maintenance under an asset management approach.
This January saw a slight change in emphasis in relation to the Government’s presentation of the Pothole Fund, reflecting a recognition that the money might be better used for preventative work.
In a DfT document, officials said the overall total of £250m was ‘enough to repair on average over 4.7 million potholes or to stop them forming in the first place’.
According to the survey, the cost difference between planned and reactive pothole filling has widened. While the average cost of filling a pothole as part of a planned programme fell from £53 to £49, the cost per pothole of a reactive repair rose from £64 to £72.
The ALARM survey also asked councils how they had rated themselves in the second round of the DfT Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund self-assessment process.
Responses to the survey show the number of councils placing themselves in the highest band (band 3) increased to 45% from just 3% last year.
As previously reported a DfT official told a conference last week that self-assessment was ‘working’ and that only four councils remained in the lowest band, band 1.
The ALARM report added that qualitative research ‘highlights that authorities are supportive of this shift in allocating funds’. One local authority official said: ‘The DfT self-assessment was a valuable process to go through and is keeping everyone focused.’
Mr Lugg, who was a key architect of the self-assessment process, said the system was working and has helped embed asset management across the sector.
‘I have been speaking to local authorities and lots more have managed to secure prudential borrowing and find ways of getting investment without government funding.
‘In think that is predicated on having better outcomes and a clear message to make the case to council members, Councillors are more supportive because they have that message.’
Respondents to the survey continued to express dissatisfaction with the need to bid for central government funding streams, such as the Highways Maintenance Challenge Fund. One local authority officer said: ‘Our Challenge Fund bid submission cost us about £20,000 to put together and we were unsuccessful. That’s £20,000 less to spend on our roads.’