Mark Stevens, assistant director, direct services at Haringey Council and chair of the ADEPT Engineering Board, considers how local highway authority officers will react to the £8.3bn for local highway maintenance. Gamechanger or spin?
On the face of it, the injection of an additional £8.3bn into local highway maintenance could prove to be transformative for local highway authorities, the broader highways sector – supporting both traditional road maintenance techniques and associated emerging technology – and the wider public, who could have safer roads to travel on.
As every journey starts and ends on a local road, any additional funding is welcomed because virtually everyone benefits.
The potential scale of the overall £8.3bn investment is significant as, in the fullness of time, it will address part – but not all – of the identified highway maintenance backlog, which particularly in recent years has been growing at a worrying rate.
Between 2015-16 and 2020-21, the annual investment in local highway maintenance across the country (excluding London) was just under £1bn.
It wasn’t enough and didn’t account for the impact of inflation or increases in road length over time. But what that six-year funding arrangement brought to local authorities was a degree of financial stability and the opportunity to take a longer-term asset management approach across all forms of highway infrastructure – not just roads.
There were intermittent injections of capital funding that saw that £1bn topped up to varying levels, although that was sometimes allocated with short delivery periods in late autumn, thereby creating problems with in-year delivery.
In 2020/21 (the first year of the £2.5bn highway maintenance ‘pothole fund’ top-up over five years), the total allocated was £1.65bn, which raised hopes that the country’s highway maintenance need had finally been recognised.
But there was a complete lack of clarity about the following year until the 2020 Autumn Statement - let’s not forget we were all in the midst of COVID-19 at that stage, with no real indication as to when ‘normality’ would return.
So, as feared/predicted by some, the 2021/22 total funding fell away to £1.125bn (if only London is excluded from the funding calculation to ‘compare apples with apples’) – and the one-year allocation perpetuated uncertainty.
We are now in the middle year of a three-year allocation of a continuing (comparing apples with apples) £1.125m per year (or £915m from the perspective of authorities outside of London and City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement).
The £200m ‘pothole fund' this year was also welcomed but nonetheless viewed as ‘a drop in the ocean’.
So, why would I or any other local highway authority officer consider that the latest announcement is a gamechanger rather than spin?
Well, the ‘size of the prize’ at £8.3bn is substantial. A welcome change is that London boroughs will actually see some much-needed financial benefit.
Although the announcement has come in November, local authorities will generally have already been told officially of their allocations for this and next financial year, rather than just being given an indicative sum on the gov.uk website.
So, essentially we all know what we have for next financial year, four months in advance, which allows programme adjustments.
I’m optimistic that there is a real prospect of funding allocations ramping up over time as the message has been fed into the Department for Transport from all quarters of the highways sector for years that more money is needed over a longer period than 12 months.
That is so the industry can approach the future with confidence, growing its workforce by bringing in ‘fresh blood’ with the confidence that this is a growing rather than a shrinking sector.
The notion of low-level flatlining with a final surge in the last year or two of the 11-year period doesn’t really help anyone other than conspiracy theorists! What would be even worse than that would be to front-load the funding and then fail to deliver.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that, going forward, we retain a government funding baseline of £915m/£1.125m (comparing apples with apples or pears, whatever is your fruit preference) – and I think that this baseline would have been higher before now, had it not been for COVID-19.
Local authorities are already putting in their own funding to prevent their highway networks completely falling apart and will manage their respective capital programmes to profile based on this year's £200m pothole top-up, not being there next year.
The sooner we all know what our allocations are from 2025-26 onwards, the better – so we can all maximise the financial benefits that the additional funding can bring as soon as possible.
I don’t believe this a false dawn – it’s the start of brighter days ahead but the sun might just take a little while to come up.