Former director at the Department for Transport (DfT) and current director of the RAC Foundation, Steve Gooding (pictured), shares his opinions about the pace of innovation and development in the highways industry.
The poor condition of our local roads has been a common talking point for as long as I can remember, probably ranking second only to the weather as a subject we can all get our teeth into.
But whereas, a few pretty out-there scientific experiments aside, we haven’t yet found a way to control the weather, we cannot make the same claim for the construction and maintenance of roads, both of which we have been doing for centuries.
Is this simply, at heart, a money problem? Millions of potholes, fraying edges, faded markings, unkempt verges and rampant foliage obscuring traffic signs bear testament to tough times in local highway departments. There is no escaping the fact that local budgets are under severe pressure, a situation that is set to worsen with growing demands on councils’ social care services.
Are we to be condemned forever to moan ineffectually, much as we do when it rains too much, or not enough, or at the wrong time?
Only once in my working life have I been chastised for over-optimism, but I do wonder whether there might be some patches of blue sky to be spotted among the lowering clouds.
First up, transport secretary Chris Grayling is pressing ahead with his plans to recognise the existence of a major road network (the MRN), a web of nationally and regionally important roads that are under local authority management. In his party conference speech Mr Grayling listed five MRN enhancement schemes around the country that would move into development.
He then added: ‘We’re already spending record amounts on fixing potholes. But I will be setting out further plans in the coming weeks to tackle this blight.’
Is it too much to hope that those further plans might be associated with some fresh funding specifically for maintenance, perhaps from the National Roads Fund created by the ringfencing of Vehicle Excise Duty?
Then there was the first national infrastructure assessment, published by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) back in July. We might have expected the NIC to focus its attention on the various aspects of infrastructure network capacity and be drawn more to focus on additions rather than resilience. But it was very welcome to see that the NIC rightly recognised there is a critical difference between having decent network coverage and having coverage that is fully open for business.
Hence the NIC has recommended that ‘Government makes £500m a year of funding available from 2025/26 to 2034/35 for local highways authorities to address the local road maintenance backlog.’
OK, it’s ‘jam tomorrow’, but let’s see what the good folks in the Treasury make of this when they are drafting the Government’s response.
And now we have the Transport Select Committee carrying out an inquiry into how the local roads that make up 97% of network length in England and carry two-thirds of traffic should be governed and paid for.
Among other things, the committee has sought evidence on the condition of local roads and how that compares with other parts of England’s road network; the direct and wider economic and social costs of not maintaining local roads; the quality of monitoring and reporting of local road conditions; the current approach to maintenance and the suitability of the current governance structures.
That sounds like a sensible list to me, not least because it begs not only the question of how much money is really needed, but also of how best that money could be deployed. It also picks up the issue of how best we could document the condition of local roads.
Various options have been adopted over the years, but none really seem to get to the heart of the issue, in part because whatever the national aggregate numbers suggest, motorists will judge the condition of the roads they drive on by the presence of the last pothole they had to drive over.
As you would expect, the RAC Foundation has made its representation, which we expect the committee to publish shortly, though we understand the stack of submissions the committee clerk is wading through bears testament to the widespread interest this issue has attracted. Parliamentary propriety precludes me from sharing our evidence prior to its publication by the committee.
But there are a couple of things which we are already on record for saying and which bear repeating here.
One is that we wonder whether the great road engineers – Telford and McAdam – would be impressed with the pace of development in highway engineering since the 1800s. Has the industry been as innovative as it could have been in areas such as recycling materials, sealing surfaces and developing ways of permanently re-instating the carriageway after works that genuinely deserve the word ‘permanent’? The pages of Highways, the sector's magazine of record, contain many patches of blue sky on this – but perhaps stop short of giving us a full-on summer’s day.
And the other is that we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact, inconvenient as it may be, that beneath many miles of road there sit many more miles of gas and water pipes, sewers and drains, conduits and cables, all of which need attention from time to time.
When Bernard Cribbins famously sang of the hole in the ground he was digging (anyone under 40 can Google it – other search engines are, of course, available) he noted that once he was done the ground was ‘all flat’. Oh, would that it were so.
What has surprised me has been the message I have heard countless times over the last couple of years – that the real issue about the quality of reinstatement is not about the money or the materials, it is about the quality of the workmanship.
So, while we wait with eager anticipation for the transport secretary’s plans, for the Transport Select Committee’s views and for the chancellor’s generosity, might we turn our minds to what would have to be true to achieve a permanent solution to the challenge of repair and reinstatement?