16 August 2023

The great pothole repair failure

The great pothole repair failure image
Image: O de R / Shutterstock.com.

Data from the OECD, a group of 38 high-income countries, this week revealed that the UK has fallen far behind other high-income countries when it comes to funding pothole repairs. Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) chair Rick Green discusses what needs to be done.

It was disappointing to see the UK at the bottom end of the OECD scale when the Local Government Association (LGA) released its findings on highway maintenance budgets earlier this week – especially for a country that has the sixth-largest economy (GDP) in the world.

Was it a surprise? Not really; it just reinforced what local authority highway teams have been telling us in our Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey, which provides detailed insight into the funding and conditions of the local road network in England and Wales.

The data received provides a means of tracking any improvement or deterioration, allowing long-term trends to be reported. Since the first ALARM survey was produced in 1995, local authority highway teams have reported an ongoing lack of sustained investment in our local road network.

Over the past 28 years we have repeatedly seen a pattern of short-term cash injections to stem accelerating decline, followed by further years of underfunding.

Of course, we have always appreciated, especially in recent years, that there are difficult choices to make, but not investing in local road maintenance only leads to worsening conditions, which impact on other locally provided public services, as well as a rising bill to fix the problem.

A ‘plague of potholes’ should not be inevitable. They are the symptom of an underfunded network and ultimately one that has deteriorated to a point where it is more susceptible to the combined effects of more extreme weather events, increased volumes of traffic and rising costs due to inflationary pressures, which have only compounded the challenges of the obvious historic lack of investment.

Local authority highway teams have a legal responsibility to keep our roads safe, but just don’t have the funds to do so in a cost effective, proactive way. Only filling potholes is indicative of a network on the edge and is less efficient when it comes to materials usage and carbon emissions than planned preventative maintenance to enhance resilience.

All of this means engineers can do less with the funds they do have, and many have told us they have been forced to postpone or cancel road schemes to make savings.

The link between continued underinvestment and the ongoing structural decline and below-par surface conditions of our local roads is clear. ALARM 2023 reported that it would now take £14.02bn – the highest recorded in 28 years of ALARM surveys – to tackle the backlog of repairs and bring them up to a condition from which they could be effectively managed going forward. This equates to more than £68,000 – as a one-off catch-up cost – for every mile of local road in England and Wales.

Highway engineers can only do so much with the resources they’re given and should be applauded for the steps they take to keep roads safe. But it's clear from the column inches and social media posts devoted to potholes that the condition of our local roads remains a key issue for the public. Without a change to the funding structure and the amount allocated, local road conditions can’t – and won’t – improve.

We, like the LGA and many others in the sector, continue to advocate for a longer-term funding horizon from central Government. The AIA also believes that more local highway budget ringfencing is needed to ensure that funds are directed to the type of works that deliver the best value for money and lower lifetime carbon impacts while enhancing conditions for all road users and improving the resilience of the network for the future.

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