Cutting ribbons on old roads

Steve Gooding

The former director at the Department for Transport and current director of the RAC Foundation argues that highway maintenance still does not get the support it deserves.

The correct reaction to the latest ALARM survey of local road conditions should be…well ‘alarm’ among politicians, councillors and road users alike, as it is in the community of officers, officials and the highways supply chain responsible for stewardship of the vital national asset that is our road network. 

The problem is that the central message – that the maintenance backlog runs to many billions of pounds – is little different from previous years.

The survey has become a regular feature of the motoring calendar. For some reason it just isn’t setting alarm bells ringing in the ears of those holding the purse strings.

On the face of it this is odd, given the fact that the evidence of our own eyes is that many of the roads on which almost all of our journeys start and end are literally fraying at the edges, pitted with patches, at best, and potholes at worst. The combination of the infamous Beast from the East, Storm Emma, and then heavy rain will have added to the problem.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our road network is showing its age. Just after World War II there were around two million cars on the road. Today it is closer to 31 million. Then there are the HGVs (half a million of them) and the vans (almost four million in total). That’s quite a burden of wear and tear, with more to come if the Department for Transport’s (DfT) 2015 National Transport Model for England forecasts are to be believed, predicting as they do that between 2010 and 2040 traffic will grow by at least 19% and possibly by as much as 55%.

The trouble is that the growth in traffic has come hand-in-hand with a decline in maintenance spend. In the last financial year, 2016-17, local government revenue spending on roads was a little over a billion pounds. Contrast that with the inflation-adjusted peak of £5.5bn spent back in 1988-89.

Meantime Northamptonshire CC is the first – but probably not the last – to say there would be no new spending in the coming financial year because of ‘unprecedented’ challenges. To try and balance the books the council tax in the county is rising by 5.98%. And then there are worries about many local authorities having to draw on their reserves just to make it through the year.

No wonder councils look with undisguised, and perfectly understandable, envy at life on Highways England’s side of the street, where the Road Investment Strategy charges Jim O’Sullivan’s merry band with a five-year to-do list and a five-year budget to cover the costs.

We still tend to hear a lot more from the politicians about the shiny new schemes, particularly mega-projects such as the A14, the Stonehenge Tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing (forget Bitcoin, invest in ribbon for cutting at the opening ceremonies – have you noticed that even the Highways England logo is ribbon-shaped?) – but we’ll forgive them for seeing the sense in boosting Jim’s maintenance budget too. After all, it’s the strategic roads that take the greatest pounding from the heaviest vehicles, so they’re the most important, right?

Well, most important probably, but does the defined ‘strategic road network’ (SRN) really extend to cover all the roads of national and regional economic importance? ‘No’ said David Quarmby and Phil Carey in their 2016 Rees Jeffreys Road Fund report, advocating the creation of a major road network – the MRN – that would encompass the SRN and go quite some way beyond it. And it’s gratifying their advice has found favour with transport secretary Chris Grayling, at least to the extent of identifying a further tranche of economically significant roads and creating a pool of funds for enhancing them. The DfT’s consultation on the MRN as it might be defined in England is drawing to a close as I type.

But once again the exciting world of enhancement looks set to edge out the mundane business of maintenance, even for these vital arteries of the nation’s commerce.

Is this really tenable? Let’s go back to the question of whether we can all hear those ALARM bells ringing. It is no coincidence that in the past month there have been at least two prime-time TV shows dedicated to the pain of potholes and cost of congestion, with corresponding stories reported in national and local news bulletins. Producers know that these are concerns that chime with their audiences, or they wouldn’t give them airtime. And the things that worry us should worry the people we elect.

Maybe we need a different tack altogether. If the alarm isn’t working then a huge ‘hurrah’ and the lasting thanks of every road user await the person who comes up with a camera-friendly ribbon-cutting ceremony for maintenance. 


Highways jobs

Chief Executive

Competitive Salary
In this unique role, leading the UK’s first sub-national transport body, you’ll draw on your understanding of... Manchester/Leeds (flexible)
Recruiter: Transport for the North

Head of Enforcement & Safety

£67,164 - £75,695
You will have responsibility for operational delivery of key services across the Borough, including... London (Greater)
Recruiter: Havering London Borough Council

Head of Outbreak Control (12-month FTC)

£67,164 - £75,695
You will need to demonstrate specific experience in working with the general public, including customer care initiatives such as London (Greater)
Recruiter: Havering London Borough Council

Head of Highways, Traffic and Parking

£67,164 - £75,695
As Head of Highways, Traffic and Parking, reporting into the Assistant Director for Highways and Environment, you will have responsibility for... London (Greater)
Recruiter: Havering London Borough Council

Assistant Director of Public Realm

£92,700 to £101,423
As Assistant Director of Public Realm you will provide the strategic direction for, and management of a range of services designed to ensure... London (Greater)
Recruiter: Havering London Borough Council

Senior Infrastructure Server Engineer (Senior Data Centre Engineer)

£41,952 - £48,663 per annum
The successful candidate will have a BSc in relevant discipline, or equivalent industry experience. Camden, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Camden London Borough Council

Senior Programme Officer (Transport)

£32,910 - £36,922
As a Senior Programme Officer for strategic transport, you will play a pivotal role in shaping the strategic direction of transport policy for... Northumberland
Recruiter: Northumberland County Council

Senior Construction Team Leader.1347

£28,672 - £32,234 per annum
You will act as first line manager for the operational construction, depot & highways teams to ensure the best use of available resources to... Northumberland
Recruiter: Northumberland County Council

Transport Planner

£26,025 - £38,616 depending on skills
Are you looking for working arrangements that enhance your work-life balance? London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Sustainable Transport Lead

£39,000- £45,000 per annum
Do you have experience in climate action and community led projects? Cirencester, Gloucestershire
Recruiter: Publica

Highway Development Control Manager (Highways and Engineering)

£35,662 - £41-811 per annum
We are looking for an exceptional candidate who can work with internal and external clients to assess the transport and highways elements of... Calderdale, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council

Conservation Officer

£26,025 - £38,616 depending on skills
Do you have passion and enthusiasm for the historic built environment?  London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Project Manager - Waste Management

Up to £47389 per annum
Project Manager - Waste ManagementFixed Term, 24 monthsFull Time, 37 hours per weekUp to £47,389 per annumLocation
Recruiter: Essex County Council

Programme Manager - Waste Management

£51510 - £62842 per annum
Programme Manager - Waste ManagementPermanent, Full TimeUp to £62,842 per annumLocation
Recruiter: Essex County Council

Senior Planner (Policy)

£33,543 - £46,962
Are you looking for working arrangements that enhance your work-life balance? London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Deputy Director - Neighbourhoods

c. £100k
This role will take the lead on a wide range of our public facing services... Bexley (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Bexley

Director, Environment and Waste

Attractive Remuneration Package      
As the biggest County Council in the country, there is a fantastic opportunity to make a big difference. Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

Corporate Director, Growth, Environment and Transport

Attractive Remuneration Package      
This is a great time to join Kent County Council.  Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

CPP Engineer x2

£19,698- £35,745
Wirral is home to vibrant, energetic and engaged communities, people who take real ownership of their local area and are passionate about... Wirral, Merseyside
Recruiter: Wirral Borough Council

Asset Manager

£38,705 (pro rata for part time)
We have a new role waiting for you to join us as an Asset Manager (Carriageways, Footways and Street Furniture). Suffolk
Recruiter: Suffolk County Council

Highways Presents

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Highways Heroes Special

View the latest issue

Latest Video