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ROAD MAINTENANCE FUNDING INADEQUATE TO MEET DEMANDS OF RISING TRAFFIC LEVELS

The pressures facing hard-strapped highway authorities is underlined by new Department for Transport figures that show traffic levels are at an all time high.

The latest Quarterly Road Traffic Estimates show that between July to September 2014 traffic levels increased by 2.2% compared to the same quarter in 2013. In total some 77.9 billion vehicle miles were travelled on Britain’s roads with urban minor roads experiencing the highest increase – up by 3.5%.

Despite the growth in traffic levels, the money available to highway authorities to ensure that roads are well maintained and able to cope with such an increase continues to decrease.

Continued under-investment in the road network has left a £12 billion backlog of road repairs. The struggle for local highway authorities to fund long-term road maintenance rather than quick fix, patch-and-mend was demonstrated by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Highway Maintenance. In its report, ‘Managing a valuable asset: improving local road condition’, the Group highlighted the deteriorating state of the UK regional and local road network and calculated that outside London, road maintenance is under-funded by an average of £6.2 million per local authority every year.

“Highway budgets are already severely stretched with current funding levels being inadequate to bring the road network up to an adequate standard”, said Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association. “Decades of under-funding have forced local authorities to adopt short-term, expensive patch-and-mend rather than implement planned programmes of cost-effective long-term maintenance.”

He continued: “The increase in traffic levels will place further pressure on the road network.  The Department for Transport puts the increase down to an improving national economy.  The government must recognise that a well-maintained road network is essential for a successful economy.   Unfortunately, the current reality of our deteriorating road network is potholes, vehicular damage, and traffic congestion that costs the UK economy £5 billion a year.”

Is devolution the way ahead for road maintenance?

Following the Scottish referendum, there has been much debate about devolving decisions not just for Scotland but also for Wales and the English cities and regions. Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA) examines what this could mean for road maintenance.

The main reason for devolution is simple. It is focused on cities and regions wanting to be ‘masters of their own destinies’. As such they believe that they could deliver services more efficiently and effectively as local government is closer, more responsive and more accountable to local residents and businesses and can so more readily direct resources meet local needs.

For road maintenance a main devolution driver is financial certainty and control. Following the government’s 2010 Spending Review, the Department for Transport cut road maintenance budgets by £1.2 billion over four years from 2011 to 2015. Since then it has provided an additional £1.1 billion on nine separate occasions. Such separate funding allocation is inefficient as highway authorities have no certainty for long-term planning.

Realising that uncertainty hampers planning and allocation of resources, the Department has since set out its capital allocation for local road maintenance at £976m a year from April 2015 to April 2021. However, local highway authority spending on road maintenance was 7% lower in 2012-13 compared with 2010-11 after funding for all council services was slashed by the Department for Communities and local Government by 33% in real terms for four years from April 2011 and is set to fall by a further 10% in real terms from 2015-16 to 2020-21.

Devolution could see a step change in local taxation to provide funds for road maintenance. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calculates that on average 17% of the money that UK councils spend is raised through local taxes. The average across the rest of the OECD is 55% with the amount of local taxation controlled locally or regionally being 10 times greater in Canada, 7 times greater in Sweden and nearly 6 times more in Germany. Faced with this imbalance between local control and central government’s unpredictable largesse it is small wonder that local government would like the devolved power to raise local taxes for local services. However, there is a potential problem. It could result in a patch work of well funded, well maintained roads in one UK region that are linked to poorly funded, poorly maintained roads in another. That would not offer the transport connectivity considered essential for economic and social well being. There is also the potential problem the local residents may not wish to be taxed for a service that not only they but also non-tax paying non-residents and non-local businesses benefit from.

For devolution to work there needs to be a high level of cooperation and collaboration between city and county councils. This in turn requires a new way of thinking that encourages long-term planning, innovative working practices, forward thinking asset management and the realisation of the economic benefits of group purchasing. For roads maintenance to a considerable extent this is already being achieved via the creation of a number of local highway authority alliances. These alliances are providing a template for local decision making, access to and allocation of resources. Their collaborative approach means that the potential problem of patchwork road standards should be avoided.

The calls for devolution will continue to grow as cities and counties no long want to look to Whitehall for resources and permission as they gain the belief and confidence that local government is best placed to deliver local services. For road maintenance the shift to the type of regional alliances that could deliver devolved planning and delivery is becoming well established with proven cost and efficiency benefits. However, before we venture down the road of full local control there is a caveat that once Whitehall has passed on the responsibility of not just maintaining roads but funding too it will not take it back if the local commitment and willingness to raise local taxes is found to be wanting.

Roads are getting better but we still have a long way to go

Slowly but surely the condition of Britain’s local road network seems to be improving according to a new survey. However, there remains a long way to go and it would only take a severe winter to underline the weaknesses of our road network warns the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA).

The latest National Highways and Transport (NHT) Public Satisfaction Survey shows a slight improvement of 3% in overall public satisfaction with the condition of the road network.  Of the 70,000 respondents, there was a 4% improvement in the level of satisfaction with the speed and quality of road repair and a 7% reduction in people who thought that the number of potholes had decreased.

Commenting on the survey’s findings, Howard Robinson, RSTA chief executive said: “Against a difficult economic climate, local authorities and the road surface industry are working hard to address the problems resulting from severe underinvestment in our road network. The NHT survey reports that 34% of the public are satisfied with the conditions of local roads. However, that means that 66% are not.”

Increasingly, faced with continued budget cut backs and restraints despite some government funding increase, local authorities are working closely with the road surface industry for greater efficiencies. This has seen local authorities adopting initiatives forwarded by the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) and realising the benefits of asset management. For its part, the road surface industry continues to further develop best practice and new products that provide long-term performance and optimum solutions.

As part of the survey those local authorities who had made particular progress in improving their road network were congratulated. They included: Nottingham City Council, London Borough of Southwark, Blackpool Borough Council and Medway Council. Special mention was also made of Sheffield City Council and Clackmannanshire Council.

“The condition of our local road network continues to be a major concern. Local authorities are to be commended for the progress that they have made given the challenges of restricted budgets. Although the government has made some additional funding available it is yet to address the real problem of £12 billion necessary to bring our road network up to a reasonable standard”,  said Robinson.

UK Motorists get a raw deal

New figures from the RAC Foundation highlight the fact that motorists are paying four times more money in taxation than is being spent by the government on roads. This is simply unacceptable believes the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA).

The RAC report, ‘Public expenditure, taxes and subsidies: land transport in Great Britain’, shows that in 2013 £30.7 billion was raised from direct motoring taxation (excluding VAT). This included £24.8 billion from fuel duty and £5.9 billion from vehicle excise duty. However, in the same year just £7.5 billion was spent on the road network: £3 billion on motorways and trunk roads and £4.5 billion on the local road network.

“There is a substantial gap between the taxation levied on motorists and the amount the government provides for roads. The result is under investment and potholes,” said Howard Robinson, RSTA chief executive.

Some £12 billion is necessary to address the national and local backlog of repairs and potholes.

“UK motorists are getting a raw deal. They provide over £30 billion in taxes to the Treasury. It seems only reasonable that a fair share of that is invested back into the road network”, said Robinson.

Rain could stop play for proposed road work permits

The Department for Transport (DfT) has opened a public consultation on proposals for a standardised road works permit scheme. The proposals may be attractive on paper but in practice will probably fail in some aspects due to the vagaries of the British weather.  For when it comes to road works it could simply be a case of rain stops play with unwarranted severe consequences for contractors.

Under the plans, the DfT will allow council chief executives to sign-off local permit schemes rather than applying for central government permission. A key area of this new policy will be the standardisation of permit conditions. Permit schemes require anyone carrying out road works to apply for a permit in advance with local councils setting out work conditions.

“By their very nature standardised permits can be inflexible. No one job is the same as another”, said Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA). “Furthermore permitting has the potential to be unworkable due to the weather. Road surfacing treatments are weather dependent. If it is raining or temperatures are freezing then work cannot be undertaken.”

With a permit only allowing work on predetermined days, adverse weather could prevent road surface treatments being carried out during the prescribed time. Given the vagaries of the British weather this scenario could be repeated throughout the road surfacing season resulting in an increase in contractors’ costs in turn leading to an increase in contractor rates and less value for road budgets.

“The proposed permit schemes must take full account of the fact that road surfacing work is subject to clement weather conditions.  Road contractors can provide cost effective and long-lasting road surfaces but they cannot predict the weather,” said Robinson.

Is there a link between increased road casualties and poor road condition?

Whilst there are no official studies into the correlation between poor road surface condition and road casualty figures, it should come as no surprise that the sharp increase in road accidents comes at a time of growing concern over the £12 billion back log in road repairs.

Figures released by the Department for Transport (DfT) show a significant increase of 17% of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) on our roads in the first quarter of 2014 compared to 2013. Worryingly, DfT figures also show that traffic volume has only risen by 4.1% to 5.1% over the same period leading to the conclusion that traffic casualties are rising much faster than traffic volume.

In total, casualty figures, including slight injuries, rose to 45,960 – a rise of 15% from 39,751.

“Although there are no actual figures to support the correlation, it would be surprising if there was no link between the deteriorating condition of road surfaces and the increase in road casualties. Potholes and reduced skidding performance have a direct impact on the safety of road surfaces,” said Howard Robinson, Chief Executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA).

In addition to concern over the negative impact of poor road condition road safety, Robinson also points to the decrease in the use of high friction surfacing at accident hotspots such as road junctions, roundabouts and zebra crossings.

High friction surfacing (HFS) significantly improves the skid resistance of roads and its use can result in a 50% reduction in accidents. However, out-dated concerns over cost and durability have seen a marked decline in the use of HFS. This is now being addressed with the initial cost of HFS being balanced against the significant savings resulting from reduced accidents – it is estimated that the associated accident and investigation costs of a non-motorway fatal accident can be up to £1.4 million – and the availability of best practice installation guidance and practical operative training.

“A well-maintained road surface is a safe road surface. The significant increase in road casualties points to the need for correct investment in long-term maintenance of our road network”, said Robinson.

Address inadequate road maintenance funding not just allocation criteria

With the Department for Transport (DfT) due to launch its consultation period on proposals to change road maintenance funding rules, the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA), whilst welcoming a fundamental review of funding,  is concerned that the proposed performance-based rewarding of  funds could result in a nationwide patchwork of conflicting road standards.

Currently, local highway authorities receive central government funding for road maintenance via the Highways Maintenance Capital Block Grant. This funding allocation is based on a formula developed in 2005 and is based upon the miles of road that each highway authority has. The DfT propose that every local authority would receive a baseline settlement with additional funding being reserved for those authorities who have highway asset management strategies in place and can demonstrate increased road maintenance efficiencies.

“Whilst we welcome and encourage highway authorities to be forward thinking and adopt asset management, any new funding arrangements should take full account that different authorities are at different stages of asset management implementation”, said Howard Robinson, RSTA chief executive. “Given that local road networks are interlinked to provide a national network, it is important that a performance-related funding mechanism does not result in a piece-meal improvement where one authority has a well-maintained road network whilst those of neighbouring authorities are poor.”

RSTA is calling for the government to acknowledge that it must increase the overall road maintenance budget before introducing two tier funding mechanisms. Robinson continued: “The potholed result of inadequate level of investment in road maintenance is, sadly, all too evident. With some £12 billion necessary to bring the road network up to standard, the lack of adequate funding for road maintenance rather than how an insufficient amount is allocated needs to be addressed first.”

Road Minister is out-of-touch over potholes and road maintenance

Recent comments by the Roads Minister Robert Goodwill that potholes are to be welcomed as a sign of a booming economy underline how out-of-touch the government is when it comes to investing in a well-maintained road network.

Speaking on LBC radio last week as the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was announcing how an additional £168 million emergency fund for fixing potholes would be allocated to local highway authorities, Goodwill said: “More goods are travelling around as the economy improves. More people are travelling to work as they get jobs so this means the roads are getting more wear and tear.”

Commenting on this simplistic view of the deteriorating state of the UK’s road network, Howard Robinson, Chief Executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA) said: “The real issue is the decades of under-investment in road maintenance that has resulted in a £12 billion bill to restore the road network to an acceptable condition. Massive under-investment means that we have a road network full of pot holes that is it not fit for purpose now that the economy is improving”.

Indeed the poor state of the UK’s road network is a hindrance to economic recovery. Local authorities are paying out over £32 million annually is compensation claims from road users for personal injury or vehicle damage. Nationally, the potholes cost the economy £5 billion a year due to reduced productivity, increased fuel consumption, vehicular damage and delayed deliveries.

“The economic truth is that the lack of real investment means that the condition of our roads continue to worsen. Piecemeal, unpredictable funding like the additional emergency pothole fund is not the way forward,” said Robinson.  “Potholes are not a result of an improving economy but the inability of the government to recognise the result of decades of under-investment in the maintenance of the UK road network which just happens to be the nation’s most valuable asset.”