All too often good road maintenance is viewed as being desirable rather than essential. This perception is misplaced and must change believes Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association.
The failure to appreciate the true socio-economic worth of a well-maintained road network is underlined by the fact that the government has, over many decades, failed to provide adequate funding for road maintenance and that local authorities, faced with dwindling resources, are often forced to raid the road maintenance budget to fund other services.
Unfortunately road maintenance is not glamourous. It does not have the news impact of expanding the trunk road network or investing in high speed rail links. Nevertheless it is essential. Roads are an asset that promote economic viability and social well-being. Businesses can trade. People can live their lives.
There are further reasons to ensure that we have a well-maintained road network. Maintenance is crucial to the safety of the road network. Poorly maintained potholed roads and those that have lost their skid resistance are a safety hazard. There are the financial costs to road users. Vehicles using deteriorating roads consume more fuel and may need more repairs. There is also a compensation cost with local authorities. Last year, according to the Local Government Association, they had to pay over £53 million in compensation to drivers for vehicular damage resulting from potholes. This is money that local authorities can ill afford.
Above all there is the financial good sense of investing in programmes of planned cost-effective long-term preventative maintenance rather than expensive emergency short-term patch-and-mend. It costs only £2m2 to surface dress and maintain a road but costs an average £57m2 to repair potholes.
The negative impact of decades of under-investment in road maintenance has been confirmed by the latest Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey carried out by the Asphalt Industry Alliance. The survey found that despite additional government emergency pothole repair funding and a significant 33% increase in the number of potholes being repaired during 2014 there still remains a black hole of £12.16 billion required to bring the local road network up to an adequate standard, this is an increase from £12 billion in 2013.
The survey found that 2.7 million potholes were filled and repaired last year. However, this is expensive reactive repair rather than cost-effective preventative maintenance that would prevent the potholes forming in the first place. This has long been the logical economic argument forwarded by the road maintenance industry.
Local highway departments acknowledge the benefits of structured road maintenance programmes as part of their long-term asset management plans. Unfortunately, they do not have the financial certainty to allow them to plan and implement such programmes.
There is some optimism that the government is at last realising the need for assured long-term road maintenance funding with £6 billion pledged between 2015 and 2021. However, this may sound like a significant amount of money but given the poor state of the road network and the growing traffic demands being placed upon it the funding will only be enough for local authorities to continue to play catch-up and do nothing to address the £12 billion backlog of road repairs. It also underlined how short-changed motorists are. Road taxes raise some £6 billion a year whilst fuel duty raises a further £27 billion. More of this money should be invested into long-term road maintenance that addresses the £12 billion necessary to bring our road network up to a reasonable standard.
The case for funding a well-maintained road network is strong. Government must recognise the social and economic benefits and work with local authorities to develop long-term funding mechanisms that enable the implementation of programmes of planned maintenance.