Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the AA (RM 15)



  Lives are lost by failing to keep roads in proper conditions. Keeping Britain's roads in a decent, serviceable, condition is crucial to Britain's economy—some 90 per cent of goods and people move by road.

  However, for almost two decades road maintenance has been a victim of national and local government penny pinching and irrational economic management. The government has recognised the problem and capital funds for road maintenance have been increased and set out over a five-year period. This is welcome. There are however further actions needed:

    —  Road maintenance funding for revenue expenditure must be increased.

    —  Authorities who trade long term asset management for short-term gain should be exposed.

    —  The links between road casualties and road maintenance standards should be better researched.

    —  The road network should be returned to its 1980 condition by 2004. If the current capital allocations prove inadequate, they must be further increased.

    —  The measurement and reporting of road and bridge condition should now be undertaken by a body independent of local and national highway authorities. These statistics should be reliable at individual authority level and form the basis of spending allocations.

    —  The appalling backlog of repairs, now estimated at around £5 billion should never be permitted again.


  Roads, particularly at local authority level, have been starved of resources to carry out essential maintenance funding to maintain the condition of the assets. Nationally, road condition has fallen to its worst level since records began in 1977. Short-term "savings" have meant putting off what must be done until tomorrow or skimping. This simply means higher whole life costs. For example:

    —  deferring road re-construction until a point beyond its planned life ie when it starts to fail, often means the re-construction can cost nine times more;

    —  claims for damages against local councils for highway defects are significant and the value of these claims is rising.

    —  renewing road markings with paint rather than thermoplastic—paint wears out more quickly and is less conspicuous to road users so safety benefits are diluted;

    —  no cutting grass and foliage or cleaning signs so frequently may stretch a tight budget but everyone sees the result—an unkempt appearance with unreadable signs leading to driver confusion and greater accident risk;

  During the last decade communities have sometimes been asked by their local councils whether they prefer street lights turned off or school classrooms unheated, roads unsalted or homes for the elderly closed. These dilemmas have been real and challenging. Inevitably, when tough decisions have been necessary, it has been politically easier to cut, or limit, road maintenance budgets because their direct impact on lives and costs is not so understood.

  An AA survey of County Surveyors conducted in 1997 confirmed that local councils regarded the highway maintenance budget of significantly less importance than education (81 per cent less important) social services (77 per cent less important), fire service (54 per cent less important), waste management (47 per cent less important). Road maintenance budgets were considered as important as environmental health and more important (54 per cent more important) than trading standards.


  At a macro level, the consequences of decades of underfunding are serious. Major programmes of renewal and replacement have been delayed or cancelled. Some of Britain's street lamp systems, planned to last 30 years, must go on for over a hundred at the current renewal rate. Many unclassified roads will not be resurfaced for 400 years at current renewal rates.

  In many local authority areas large numbers of bridges remain unable to carry heavier lorries despite Britain being given over a decade to comply with EU law. The budget for this type of repair was £154 million in 1993 but fell to £81 million in 1998, it rose in 1999 but even then it was still 27 per cent below the 1993 level.

  The latest Institution of Civil Engineer's Local Transport Survey estimates that Britain's backlog of repairs amounts to £4.8 billion, and this figure is growing by around £1 billion annually.


  The AA's report "Where You Live and What You Get" looked at regional differences within the transport system across Britain. It found surprising differences across a range of transport issues. Road maintenance funding in particular seems to suffer from irrational distribution—and is almost certainly determined by head of population or road length rather than maintenance need (see Appendix A).

  At a local level the priority given to road maintenance spending is often determined by political perception and not measured need. Although the Government sets out the "Standard Spending Assessment" levels for road maintenance per head of population, anecdotal evidence suggests many authorities do not spend even these sums. The results are often clear to see as a driver passes from one local authority area to another but the voters never see the consequences explained in terms of increased risk of death and injury nor the high additional costs they must pay in later years.

  The last detailed DETR statistical report on road maintenance spending was published in 1993. Since then there has been massive change to the structure of local government, highways management and public finance arrangements so it is difficult to track trends. This combined with the process of condition measurement means the system has been under strain in recent years. The measurement and reporting of road and bridge condition should now be overseen by a body independent of national and local highway authorities. This body should provide the independent information to ensure that value for money is being achieved lives are not being put at risk, and that money is being rationally allocated by need.


  Recent announcements in the Ten Year Plan for transport and the local authorities Local Transport Plan settlement are welcome. The extra funding which is promised will start to turn the tide of increasing backlogs in this essential work.

  It is essential that increased funding is sustained and updated in the light of progress and any unplanned events. For example, severe weather which can inflict further damage on weakened infrastructure requiring yet further repair work. It is quite likely that some local authorities which benefited from the recent increases in grant will see the increases negated by recent flooding and hard freeze.

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Prepared 18 July 2001