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. 


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