Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Institution of Highways and Transportation (RM 10)




1.  Scope

  The IHT welcomes the Sub-committee's inquiry into the current state of repair of motorway, trunk and principal roads in England and principal roads in Wales. The terms of reference are to consider: the current position; action by Government, the Highways Agency and Local Authorities; and, possible future improvements.

2.  The Institution of Highways and Transportation

  The IHT represents over 10,000 professionals working in the highways and transportation sector in the UK. It develops and advances professional excellence as one of the UK's leading learned societies on urban and regional transport and infrastructure issues. IHT members are involved in planning, designing, financing, constructing, operating, maintaining and managing transport infrastructure.

3.  Structure

  Both the present state and future needs of UK highway maintenance vary with category of maintenance, some categories being better served than others. This report is thus presented as a series of sections reflecting these categories. Attention is also drawn to related issues which bear upon highway maintenance. The respective Highways Agency and Local Authority positions are examined within these sections and action by Government suggested where appropriate. The action points are rounded up at the end for convenience.

  4.  Action by Government, Highways Agency and Local Authorities

  There is a marked difference between both highway stock and maintenance levels and practices as operated by the HA and by LAs. The HA network represents about 4 per cent of the total UK highway length but takes about 35 per cent of the traffic. Additionally, the HA stock represents the most modern roads. Highway maintenance is not carried out in isolation, the maintenance agencies interact with other public bodies notably the Police, the Environment Agency, the Audit Commission, Planning Authorities, Traffic organisations, Railtrack, London Underground and those utilities using the roads for their apparatus. The impact of differences in roads, and of the interaction between agencies, is discussed.


4.  Previous IHT submission

  The 1996 IHT submission to the Committee found the condition of many roads markedly worse than a decade previously and expressed concern for future problems as a result of decreasing residual life expectancy. This deterioration was attributed to lack of funding and the industry's tentative efforts to embrace private finance was welcomed.

  A warning was given of the dangers of concentrating on the inter-urban trunk roads which were found to be in better condition than local roads. The submission praised the then existing methods of monitoring and measuring maintenance factors. Concern was expressed at the skills and level of morale being suffered by a shrinking workforce. The possibility of increased numbers and sizes of litigation claims directly attributable to poor maintenance was raised. Finally, concern over interagency co-operation was highlighted.

5.  Current statistics

  The figure quoted below are derived from the Government Statistical Service Tables or provided by regional IHT branches:

    —  traffic has increased at about 2 per cent per annum since 1996;

    —  no data is available to IHT for road maintenance sites or openings by the utilities but public perception is of considerable increase;

    —  the maintained road network has increased by 2,872 kilometres (0.75 per cent);

    —  overall casualty rates have remained static or fallen slightly since 1996; and

    —  both national and local budgets showed a year on year fall during 1996 to 2000 in both capital and revenue sectors. However, an increase in 2001 is projected.

6.  Current position

  Targeted funding has eased some problems referred to in the 1996 submission. In particular, the condition of motorway and some principal roads has stabilised or improved. However, the remainder of the road network has continued to deteriorate. Since 1996 HA road maintenance has greatly benefited from financial planning spread over several years.

  Vehicles of 40 tonne gross weight now use the motorway and trunk network but can experience difficulties reaching their final destination. The development of serious safety problems with the structural integrity of street lighting columns have been identified. Increased participation by the private sector has met with mixed success. There has been a marked increase in dissatisfaction amongst all classes of road user caused by increased congestion and perceived high taxes.

7.  Existing standards

  Although there is an increasing percentage of local and commuter traffic on the trunk and motorway network it is viewed as carrying through traffic whilst the older LA network is for local traffic. Furthermore, motorways do not suffer the restrictions imposed by the activities of the utilities, as do other roads. The primary source of highway standards in England and Wales is the Highways Agency which addresses its trunk network. These standards are often inappropriate or physically or financially unachievable on LA roads. Nevertheless, LAs are unwilling to opt for other standards lest they suffer litigation. This can lead to inaction. The only realistic defence at law, subject to reasonable diligence, is that an LA did not know of a problem, and inspection at LA level has all but disappeared.

  Whilst many standards, such as signage, need to be consistent across the country the case for variable maintenance standards deserves consideration.


8.  Financial Resources

  The increased funding for highway maintenance that has recently been announced is to be welcomed, particularly in view of the longer-term commitments to sustained investment. However, it is doubtful whether the provision of £30 billion which has been allocated over the next 10 years will be adequate to both arrest the deterioration and eliminate the maintenance backlog on all roads, bridges and street lighting. Nevertheless, it will certainly enable significant improvements to be made to the general condition of the highway infrastructure so long as the funding earmarked for maintenance is actually spent on maintenance.

  Whilst funding has now been extended to cover all local roads and footpaths, the funding of street lighting column renewal has been deferred until 2003-04 although there are already serious problems developing which could endanger public safety.

  Many public/private sector partnerships of different types are currently being developed. The increasing development of performance based contract specifications for maintenance treatments in particular, and the use of design and construct contracts, is encouraging innovation and product development.

  Maintenance funding derives from capital and revenue streams with different spending rules. In 1997 the HA began introducing a new five year plan under which its agents would know the allocations (in principal) for five years ahead and maintenance schemes were allowed funding in several years. This allowed major carriageway and particularly bridge strengthening projects to proceed with proper design and contract timings, (including EU notification). This in turn better enabled management to hit budget and programme targets. The IHT warmly welcomes this development which has been a big success.

  There are proposals to extend this latitude to LAs in future LTP settlements. The IHT takes the view that this action would bring universal benefit and supports it as the way forward. Another benefit which could accrue is that since the targets are known so far in advance it should be possible for Government to reduce times to outturn so that more controlled management may be practised as a result. Another benefit, much welcomed by the contracting and supply side of the industry, would be the ability to plan in the longer term.

9.  Human Resources

  Whilst substantial additional financial resources are now being provided by the Local Transport Plan settlement for 2001-02, there are serious concerns as to whether an adequate skills base exists or can be developed to deliver the programme as planned. After over 10 years of downsizing and serious financial constraints, attracting and retaining the right quantity and quality of professionals and operatives requires investment that is dependent upon the confidence of a long-term programme of funding for infrastructure maintenance.

  A second concern relates to the need for strengthening the training and certification requirements for operatives now that so much maintenance is carried out by commercial contractors who also undertake other types of work. The live highway is a dangerous place to work and a lapse by an operative can endanger many others. The transfer of maintenance work to the private sector, and the changing attitudes towards professional training, is also restricting the flow of professionals available to design and manage the work. The IHT is playing an increasing role in this latter educational sector, now offering Chartered status for its members along with a full range of vocational qualifications.

10.  Materials and Quality

  Highway maintenance is doubly dependent upon oil, as it is both energy intensive and a significant consumer of oil based products. Therefore, for both economic and environmental reasons it is prudent to manage the materials flow within the industry. Suitable choice of materials contributes significantly to the quality of life and to urban renaissance. Recycling techniques are to be encouraged; the IHT would welcome their more rapid acceptance into mainstream maintenance. Paint and coating systems are now subject to European environmental legislation. However the certification and specification process is impeding introduction of new materials.


11.  Carriageway

  Both the HA and the LAs have invested substantial effort into methods of measuring pavement condition and developing pavement management systems (PMS). There is as yet no coherent national system but the IHT fully supports the ongoing efforts to achieve this goal. The systems are able to predict how long a given stretch of carriageway will continue to provide the quality of running surface appropriate to the highway. They measure the underlying strength of the road, not the visible surface defects (as do the Audit Commission Key Performance Indicators). Visible defects can normally be fixed by simple and cheap routine maintenance methods. Once the underlying strength (residual life) has dropped to zero, expensive reconstruction is the only option. The amount of damage to the surface layers caused by the (increase in the) number of utilities' works is not currently quantified and the IHT recommends that this question be addressed.

  Using targeted maintenance funding, Highway Authorities report significant improvements to the underlying strength of their carriageways. The HA has been particularly successful in respect of motorway strengthening at the additional cost of lengthy roadworks. The IHT welcomes this and urges Government to continue to support these efforts and to commit funds for the 10 year period to 2010.

  Because of the quantities involved carriageway work consumes over 50 per cent of the highway budget for both the HA and LAs. Thus the greatest savings are to be won from methods which reduce the need for materials brought from elsewhere. Despite several successful trials in the period 1990 to 2000 and over all parts of the country, Authorities have been slow to take up recycling methods which can achieve these savings. Part of this reluctance has been due to the slow development of standards allowing these methods and the IHT urges action to speed this up.

  The HA maintenance manual requires the regular geotechnical inspection of all cuttings and embankments by suitably qualified staff. This is to safeguard against landslips. There is no formal means of recording such inspections, as there is with structures, and the IHT recommends that such a scheme be introduced. This is particularly important in times of flood and high ground water content.

12.  Drainage

  Highway drainage is an integral part of the overall land drainage requirement for an area. Without proper drainage every highway will suffer early failure. The floods of December 2000 amply demonstrate this point. Fundamental new environmental and drainage legislation was introduced during the 1990s and new agencies created to handle such matters. Ensuing benefits have been increased controls on highway operations in watercourses and the introduction of (petrol) interceptors at outfalls. The IHT welcomes these environmentally responsible measures but suggests that co-operation between the agencies could be improved.

  In normal operation drainage is the least visible highway element and therefore the easiest economy in both structural and routine work. The IHT gave warning of this in their 1996 report and notes that both the HA and more especially the LAs have made these economies. Of all highway records, drainage records are the scantiest. Records for LAs are sometimes non existent whilst even for many motorways records they are incomplete, lost or unavailable. The IHT recommends urgent action to correct this situation.

13.  Structures

  For safety reasons structures receive more intense scrutiny than other highway elements and much upgrading activity was carried out in the period 1989-2000. The HA is essentially at the end of its work to strengthen its bridges to EU standards but the LA programme is at most 50 per cent complete, with many new weight restrictions now in force. Also major owners of highway carrying structures, Railtrack and London Transport, are even further behind, and in general only offering restrictions rather than full upgrading. The IHT urges that attention be focused on sites where key bottlenecks result.

  There is currently a disparity of standards in the required level of containment of errant vehicles by parapets on modern roads and those which are achievable on older roads. This has led to either a lack of any action or ugly restricting barriers at some 35,000 sites around the country. The IHT urges Government action to resolve this issue.

14.  Lighting

  Well designed street lighting and proper illumination of signs benefits all users. Illuminated motorways have substantially lower accident rates; well-illuminated urban areas have lower crime rates. Lighting maintenance, however, has historically been regarded as simply paying the electricity bill and replacing the bulbs and damaged equipment. Both the HA and LAs have funded a good level of service in the period 1996-2000, despite storm damage and other disruption to supplies. The IHT recommends the "Code of Practice for Street Lighting Maintenance" produced by the CSS and TAG.

  The IHT notes, however, the developing problem of structural integrity of light support columns and therefore welcomes Government's policy document "Transport 2010—A Ten Year Plan" which recognises this, projecting substantial funding from 2003. It is essential that the programme of replacement of weak columns be continued beyond this date. The problem is simply due to the age of the street lighting columns, many now at double their design life of 25 years (27 per cent are over 30 years old). Corrosion and other factors cause structural weakness at the base or light bracket and can lead to collapse of the column. There are some 6.2 million columns in the UK, representing a replacement value of £4,000 million. This implies a replacement spending of £160 million per annum which should be compared with the current figure of £40 million. No simple and reliable method exists for determining the structural integrity of columns but research is underway at TRL to establish suitable methods. The IHT welcomes this project in view of the gravity and widespread nature of this problem.

15.  Signs, furniture and safety

  The UK has long been an international leader in the promotion and use of these highway elements. In most cases maintenance is by replacement and standards are well developed. For signage and road markings, both the HA and LAs are achieving a reasonable standard of performance. However the IHT is concerned that the reduced inspection regime now in force will, in future, extend the time before faults are detected and remedied. Consideration should be given to upgrading standards for sign supports. More durable coatings for steel are now available, as are rot-proof recycled plastics wood substitutes.

  The extension of safety fencing to embankment areas is welcomed, however, attention needs to be focused upon the time taken to repair damage to existing barriers. Modern rapid setting materials are recommended to reduce the number of days lanes are out of service. There have been significant developments in electronic signing and monitoring in the last decade, for the control of traffic flow or driver behaviour, or for providing traffic information. IHT members have been in the forefront of these developments and now look forward to linking the parts together to form intelligent transportation systems (ITS). Maintaining and upgrading these elements in urban environments is more sensitive. The IHT looks to future improvements in our urban landscape with more sensitive design of signs and barriers.

16.  Routine maintenance

  Horticultural maintenance and grass cutting is now very tightly controlled. Computerised schedules based on GIS information allow precise definition of the work and it is very easy to see that it has been carried out. Thus good value is being achieved. Ditch maintenance is not so well served however. The IHT suggests the need to co-ordinate ditch, culvert and drain clearance. Significant claims to adjacent riparian owners have been paid out as a result of poor ditch maintenance.

  Unlike other road fencing, the motorway is the responsibility of the Highway Authority, thus the HA maintains some 7,000 kilometres of fence. Current standards do not allow the use of timber substitutes, made from recycled plastics. These materials are similar in cost to treated timber, but stronger. Being rot-proof they also have indefinite life. Many public footpaths cross rural trunk roads. The HA has a duty, but no definite policy, to keep these clear and some are obstructed. The IHT recommends the HA to adopt a clearance policy. There is a summer fire risk on the verges of rural roads. The IHT recommends a policy of clearing a suitable firebreak around vulnerable installations, timber stiles etc. The routine maintenance budget also funds inspections and minor accident damage.

17.  Winter maintenance

  Techniques for the control of salting have become increasingly sophisticated. A salting lorry may now be tracked by satellite and the opening and closing of its salt gate monitored. Comparison with the planned route yields valuable management information. The IHT welcomes the use of such "smart" tools. Recent winters have been mild and the systems in place have worked adequately. However, the British weather is particularly unpredictable and deals us a severe winter about once a decade. We have not experienced widespread prolonged snow since 1985-86. The happy co-incidence of milder weather and financial constraint has helped budgets. Significant salt stocks have remained at the end of each recent winter.

18.  Research and Innovation

  A significant number of new techniques and processes have been introduced in recent years. Whilst a reasonable degree of caution (rather than being dilatory!) needs to be exercised in view of the potential litigation resulting from failures, the IHT wishes to encourage such developments. Greatest caution is required where the failure cost is greatest, as with the Thaumasite concrete episode in Gloucestershire. The IHT thus welcomes the continued trials of pavement refurbishment techniques, such as "crack and seat" before wholesale adoption. Whilst the IHT supports the financial analysis method of "whole life costing" it realises that this approach is only valid if the projected life is accurate. Research is needed to validate assumptions. The design life of a structure is 120 years, but the replacement rate in Somerset is 400 years. The design life of a lighting column is 25 years, but 27 per cent are over 30 years old. The design life of carriageway pavements is 20 years, but many fail before this. There are situations where innovation could be profitably accelerated without such risk. The IHT highlight these elsewhere in this submission.


19.  Continued increase in traffic

  Traffic has been growing faster (2 per cent to 3 per cent per annum) than the road network has been expanding (less than 1 per cent per annum); traffic congestion has continued to increase. Traffic is increasing because both car ownership is increasing and because of the increasing number and distance of journeys required by modern life. This, coupled with the perceived increasing frequency of road openings, has produced a sense of severe constriction on our road network and resulted in much driver frustration. The IHT believes that transportation planning needs to be considered as a whole and every effort should be made in local and national plans to find ways of reducing reliance on private transport. When considering maintenance we should seek improvements for all users not just those in vehicles. We should also seek to reduce the impact of the inexorable increase in traffic on neighbours, for instance by introducing quieter running surfaces.

20.  Roadworks

  It is public perception that traffic management for roadwork has increased dramatically in recent years so that it is now hardly possible to make a journey unaffected by them. This has led to a marked increase in driver frustration. Statistics measuring service level indicators and identifying the major instigators of this traffic management are not published. The IHT would welcome the Audit Commission—or others, as suggested in the BRF's report "Roads to Improvement"—making these enquiries and publishing this data.

21.  Other users

  Whilst the majority of users of the motorway, trunk and principal road network drive vehicles, other modes of transport should not be overlooked. The maintenance network includes crossing points such as subways and footbridges. There are accommodation structures for farmers, cyclists and equestrians. Trunk and principal roads still pass through centres of habitation. Although somewhat neglected in the past decade experience shows that good maintenance and sensitive upgrading of these elements encourage use, bring positive benefits in terms of reduced vandalism and increased public safety.

22.  Driver discipline

  Whilst the annual number of highway accident casualties continues to fall insurance companies report a steady increase in the number of damage only claims. Highway authorities are forced to spend an increasing portion of their budget on schemes to enforce driver discipline and to pay for damage to highway installations. Proactive measures to encourage driver responsibility and consideration for other road users would bring general benefits to the road system.


23.  Vandalism and other forced maintenance

  Highways suffer increasingly from vandalism and accidental damage. Much of the cost of this is not recovered. Highway authorities have also increasingly seen the need to spend resources to control driver behaviour. All of this diverts scarce resources away from needed maintenance and should be targeted for reduction.

24.  Utilities and the New Roads and Street Works Act

  Enacted in 1991, the New Roads and Street Works Act replaced previous procedures for interaction between Highway Authorities and bodies which have the right to place and maintain apparatus in highways (utilities). The provisions of the Act have come into force in piecemeal fashion and not been entirely successful. Utilities' apparatus within motorways are limited to crossings and do not significantly affect operations. Much of the rapid expansion of cable communications has been placed into the trunk and principal road network since 1996. This cabling, having no need of frost protection, could have been placed in low level trunking along the road margins rather than at shallow depth within the carriageways, many of which have, will be in need of reconstruction within 10 years. The travelling public has also suffered substantial inconvenience and delay costs due to the traffic management for these operations. Much of the Act provides guidance rather than prescriptive procedures so that many systems of recording and notifying roadworks are now in operation. The Act could be strengthened to unify procedures and to allow Highway Authorities a controlling rather than co-ordinating role.


25.  Importance of non principal routes

  Whilst an improvement in the condition of principal and trunk roads has undoubtedly been achieved through targeted capital funding in recent years, the remainder of the local highway network has continued to deteriorate and has been the subject of much public concern. Public opinion surveys have invariably highlighted high public dissatisfaction with the standard of local road maintenance. In 1996 the IHT drew the Committee's attention to the electorate's dissatisfaction with deterioration and low levels of maintenance on non-principal routes. The year on year decrease in funding during 1995-2000 has exacerbated that situation. In January 2001 of 30 letters published in one county newspaper seven were complaints about road maintenance or drainage issues.3 The backlog of local road maintenance was recognised in the Government's strategy document "Transport 2010—A 10 Year Plan" and a funding allocation for local roads was included for the first time in the Local Transport Plan settlement for 2001-02. The Motorway, Trunk and Principal highways considered represent only 12.4 per cent of the total highway in England and Wales. For these reasons the IHT again urges the Committee to consider this aspect of the road maintenance.

26.  Abnormal load routes

  The scheme in use today for the movement of abnormal loads was originally drawn up in the 1960s and is now seriously outdated. The scheme only really caters for vehicular gross weights without regard to vehicle dimensions. In particular, there are no "official" routes to over 85 per cent of destinations in the UK. There have been many instances of loads being too high or too wide to pass their intended routes. In addition to Highways Authorities many Agencies from the Police to the Nuclear Inspectorate may be involved in the passage of a given load, sometimes resulting sub-optimal planning. Some hauliers overload the notification process by "block booking" ghost loads so they will have a slot when a real one is contracted. The IHT urges fundamental restructuring, led by Government, to provide the country with a twenty first century approach.


27.  Need for continued high level of support

  It is essential that a long-term continuous programme of increased funding is provided if the planned improvements to the condition of the nation's transport infrastructure are to be achieved and problems such as those that have developed on the railway network due to under-funding are to be avoided. Such a programme is also necessary to create confidence again in the industry enabling a skilled workforce to be developed and retained, investment to be made in plant and adequate resources of materials to be identified. It is further essential for Government to resolve differences between the interests and procedures of all the agencies involved. In particular the IHT urges action on the following points:

    —  action to ensure that inspection and record keeping in all aspects at least matches those with best practice;

    —  actions to revise the standards and certification process to allow techniques and materials appropriate to the class of road concerned and to allow more rapid introduction of new techniques and materials;

    —  the introduction of new key performance indicators—or level of service standards—for roadworks and highway element life expectancies;

    —  regular testing and scrutiny of winter emergency plans, along with adequate resourcing;

    —  action to control activities on highways by strengthening the New Roads and Streetworks Act and greater education and testing for drivers;

    —  action to manage abnormal and emergency routing more effectively; and

    —  support for educational and training initiatives for personnel engaged in highway maintenance.

  The IHT would welcome the opportunity to present oral evidence if the Committee would find it of assistance in conducting its enquiry.


  1.  Highways Agency Business Plan.

  2.  Government Statistical Service.

  3.  Somerset County Gazette 12 January 2001.

  4.  Northamptonshire Highway Network Maintenance Plan.

Eric Rogers

Technical Officer

January 2001

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