10th Report - Local roads funding and maintenance: filling the gap Contents
Local roads are the arteries of prosperous and vibrant villages, towns and cities: they are critical to the movement of goods as well as helping people to get around. However, many people will not have to travel further than their local shops to see an extreme state of disrepair.
This plague of potholes is a major headache for everyone. The consequences of a deteriorating local road network are significant. It undermines local economic performance and results in direct costs to taxpayers—either through rising costs of deferred work or through a mend and make do approach that does not represent good value for money in the long-term. It also affects motorists—damaging vehicles—and causes injuries to passengers, particularly those with existing medical conditions.
The safety of other road users, especially cyclists, is seriously compromised. Pedestrians, particularly those who are older or vulnerable, can be left feeling anxious and isolated, afraid to leave their own homes.
Our inquiry into local roads funding and maintenance looked at these issues in detail and this Report makes recommendations to address the problems and put them right.
It is clear to us that the key issue is funding—there is not enough of it and what there is is not allocated efficiently or effectively. Local government revenue funding has fallen by about 25% since 2010. The allocation within it for local roads is not ring-fenced and is often used by councils to plug gaps in other budgets. Capital funding—through the Pothole Action Fund and other pots—is sporadic and time-limited. This lack of funding certainty has caused many councils to take short-term, reactive decisions on road maintenance, which is more expensive and less effective than proactive maintenance that can be planned well in advance and the cost spread out over a number of years.
To tackle this problem the Department for Transport should propose a front-loaded, long-term funding settlement to the Treasury as part of the forthcoming Spending Review so that local authorities can address the historic road maintenance backlog and plan confidently for the future. However, we are clear that this must not be an excuse for a budget cut. This settlement should not only include capital pots but should also roll up the revenue support elements of roads funding, administered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, into a five-year settlement.
The exact nature of the settlement should be determined in consultation with local authorities. They should be consulted about whether they would like to see a ‘totex’ allocation (i.e. funding that can be spent on capital or revenue, with no restrictions) and whether they want it to be ring-fenced for spending only on roads. It is also important that innovation, collaboration and good practice are properly incentivised through any settlement.
There are three further issues—linked to funding—that we consider in this Report: innovation, data collection and use and good practice and collaboration in highway management.
- Innovation is essential if the efficiency and effectiveness of local road maintenance is to continue to improve, which it must in the face of limited funding. It is right that the Government stimulates and encourages innovation but the value for money of any investment in innovation is only properly repaid when new technologies, ideas and ways of working are scaled up and available to all. In order to achieve this the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK should work together to collate all innovation funding for local roads in one place. They should establish as far as possible common rules for bidding and assessment to allow local authorities to marshal their resources effectively and achieve efficiencies and economies of scale in the bidding process. The Government should also consider how it monitors the innovations it funds and what it needs to do to ensure that a greater proportion of innovations are made available on the widest possible basis.
- Local authorities will only be able to make better use of available funds for road maintenance if they can target such funding well; this requires good data. DfT publishes basic headline data on road condition. While this is a useful tool to compare a single data set over time, it is limited in scope and detail and does not provide the depth of information given in some third-party condition surveys. The DfT needs to be clear about whether the data it receives from local authorities on road condition is consistent and allows valid comparisons to be made, what it does with such data, how it is analysed and what action is taken on the back of conclusions that it draws. It should also make it easier for the public to report road condition concerns and access local authority road condition data. The Department for Transport should take the lead on this by running an innovation competition to develop a platform that the public can use to make online reports about road condition direct to the relevant council and access real-time local road condition data.
- Making the best use of available funding requires the sharing and adoption of good practice in road maintenance. This is a key role for Government. The Department for Transport must monitor the move to a new risk-based approach and by the end of 2021 it should publish a report setting out what effect the risk-based approach has had, how local authorities have adapted and adjusted and whether it has improved their efficiency and effectiveness. Local councils and industry are developing good practice in highway survey and maintenance. However, from the evidence we have received it is not always clear that this is being widely shared. We welcome the improvements made by regional highway alliances, but we think this should be taken further. Where alliances are developing their own good practice, they should be sharing this and benchmarking it against one another. The Department for Transport could do more to facilitate this, for example by providing a virtual good practice toolkit and repository so that councils across England can find examples of good practice.