Political disagreement on projects, patchy investment, inadequate maintenance and the absence of clear, strategic thinking is undermining the contribution that transport infrastructure could make to the UK's economy and quality of life.
For this to change there needs to be a comprehensive, long-term transport strategy. To avoid the failures that have blighted the implementation of previous transport strategies there also needs to a ‘shake-up' of the decision–making framework. This should include the creation of an Independent Infrastructure Commission – operating at arm’s length from Government - to inform the development and implementation of a transport strategy and ensure it survives multiple political cycles. Such a body would also inform strategy development for other infrastructure sectors.
The extension of devolved powers on transport - through the creation of more powerful, fully integrated transport authorities in city regions - so decisions on local roads, rail, bus networks, ticketing and fares can be made by those with knowledge and understanding of their area. Transport for London provides a good example of how this could be done.
The creation of a special Transport Futures Board would provide solutions on emerging politically sensitive and complex issues – starting with how we will pay for travel in the future, following on-going debate around the idea of road user charging.
With particular regards to our road network there needs to be immediate action to improve the condition of our roads and end the short term approach to funding maintenance. The implementation of a five year budget for the Highways Agency would replace the ‘stop-start’ annual funding and lead to a commitment for a focused, joint central and local government programme that finally clears the maintenance backlog. This would help to establish a shift from reactive 'quick fix' maintenance to planned, more cost effective regimes.
The need for a coherent, long term transport strategy - particularly for England - is becoming urgent. Without one, investments and improvements to the networks will continue to be delayed, uncertain, expensive to deliver and inefficient. The Government recognises this, but it is time to translate intent into action. The Government must show it is serious about creating a more strategic framework for transport, by bringing forward the delayed Green Paper on future ownership and funding of our strategic roads network.
However, it is important to remember that strategy alone will not deliver improvements. Effective implementation of a strategy is also key and this demands political stability and a consistent vision. The mismatch between the long term nature of strategic infrastructure planning and short term political cycles has a negative influence, especially within transport. The decision making framework needs to change if we are to see the transport infrastructure we need actually get delivered and within reasonable timescales.
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Swathes of Britain's local road network could become unusable should there be more flooding or another severe winter this year. As well as frustrating motorists, the nation's crumbling carriageways are also undermining economic recovery and costing small businesses £5 billion a year. Without extra Government funding to pay for desperately needed resurfacing more severe weather could bring parts of the country to its knees.
Last year council highways teams fixed 2.2 million potholes, 500,000 more than the year before. However, despite these efforts the backlog of repairs is growing longer, now estimated at £10.5 billion with one in five roads classed as being in ‘poor condition'.
Alongside decades of underinvestment from Government, the key factor is recent freezing weather and flooding which has caused an estimated £1 billion damage. Further severe weather could now lead to a tipping point in many areas where roads will become so damaged they will have to close.
The Government must provide greater capital funding for road maintenance to turn around the spiralling decline. This will not only allow councils to make roads safer and save billions of pounds in the long term – reactive repairs are 20 times more expensive than laying a good quality surface resistant to flood and ice damage – but also boost jobs and growth.
Council spending on road maintenance has consistently been twice what the Department for Transport gives them to cover the cost, the remainder having to be made up from their own general budget. This arrangement has barely covered ongoing upkeep and even this is now at risk because of a 19% cut to the DfT grant and the 33% cut to general funding.
The case for proper funding to resurface our roads is a no-brainer. The short-termist approach of successive Governments of underfunding local road maintenance, coupled with severe weather over recent years, has taken its toll. Now we're facing unprecedented budget cuts things are only getting worse, something plain for all drivers to see.
Councils across the country are striving to make the most of their diminished budgets. However, despite their best efforts, many councils are trapped in a false economy of reactive repairs while managing a spiralling compensation bill, all the time praying it doesn't flood or freeze. Government cutting funding for roads is a very high-risk strategy, as the longer you keep simply patching up a deteriorating surface the more vulnerable it becomes to severe weather. Unless something changes, we risk swathes of Britain's road network becoming dangerously strewn with potholes or collapsing completely.
Councils need increased and consistent funding to invest in the widespread resurfacing projects which our network desperately needs if we're to see a long-term improvement. Notions that this can be paid for by council efficiency savings and smarter use of money are deeply unrealistic. We know we're in very tough economic times, but there are several potential sources of funding Government could explore.
Redirecting funding into road resurfacing would also offer an instant boost to growth. Thousands of jobs in the construction and supply sector would be created immediately and there would be many mid-term economic benefits by reducing the cost to business caused by the current state of many roads.
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Despite nine out of 10 UK motorists feeling they are ‘sitting ducks’ for the Treasury as the Government collects more than £40bn a year in motoring taxation, Britain’s roads are crumbling into one big pothole and storing up a huge bill for the future. The pitiful condition of the country’s motorways and local roads, characterised by the now year-round problem of potholes, ranks as a top concern for motorists in this year’s RAC Report on Motoring.
The report found that while the cost of driving is understandably still the number one concern for nearly half (46%) of Britain’s battle-scarred and beleaguered motorists, two in five (41%) say maintenance of local roads and motorways is their top spending priority. In addition, 84% of motorists believe their local roads are deteriorating and three-quarters (75%) think the same about motorways and other major roads.
But the question most motorists just cannot get to grips with is: why isn’t more of the money collected in motoring taxation ring-fenced for maintaining roads? A shocking four out of five (78%) think the money they pay to Government through motoring taxes is not properly invested in local roads. Without this investment the Government will be responsible for overseeing a massive decline in the state of our highways which negatively affects consumers and businesses alike, stalls the economy and stores up a huge ‘problem’ bill for future tax payers.
With revenue from fuel duty falling year on year as people drive fewer miles in more fuel efficient vehicles, the RAC Report on Motoring shows there is a real need for a new way of taxing motorists. The Report also found that 90% of the UK’s nearly 30 million car drivers are unhappy or blind to the overall balance of motoring taxation that sees more than £40bn being raised for the Treasury – with only around 22% spent improving and maintaining our national and local roads.
What’s more, a third of motorists surveyed said they are prepared to pay tolls for motorway driving (29%) or city centre congestion charges (33%) if the cost of fuel and car tax was significantly reduced – perhaps signalling a new model for taxing the motorist. With nine in 10 (89%) relying more than ever on their vehicles for day-to-day activities than 25 years ago and more than three quarters (77%) claiming they are struggling to make ends meet because of the cost of fuel, the RAC is calling on the Government to take urgent action to review the nation’s outdated motoring taxation model.
Unsurprisingly, motorists said that tax levied on fuel and Vehicle Excise Duty (car tax) should represent a smaller share of what they pay. More than 22m drivers (77%) would prefer to pay less fuel tax and half (49%) would like to pay lower levels of car tax.
Motorists are willing to pay their taxes, but want the balance of levies to reflect how they live and how the use their vehicle. The report suggests that motorists would prefer to see a higher share of motoring taxation levied on those things over which they have greater control – such as whether or not they choose to drive into city centres or use a particular motorway.
The UK motorist is not being unreasonably demanding – all he or she wants is for more of their motoring taxation to be spent on roads. Our message to Government is that it does not need to be this way – if we make simple changes today we can ensure tomorrow’s generation of motorists can enjoy the UK’s roads for years to come.
What is needed is an in-depth review of the overall motoring taxation model and for a reasonable percentage of money raised from drivers to be ring-fenced for roads – that way the ‘unlucky’ motorist can be rid of the 2013 plague of the all-year-round pothole.
The full 2013 RAC Report on Motoring can be downloaded from www.rac.co.uk/reportonmotoring.
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Copyright 2013 Road Surface Treatments Association. www.rsta-uk.org