10th Report - Local roads funding and maintenance: filling the gap Contents

1The road network

Our inquiry and this Report

1.Local roads are the arteries of prosperous and vibrant villages, towns and cities. They are critical to the movement of goods as well as to helping people get around. However, many people will not have to travel further than their local shops to see an extreme state of disrepair.

2.This plague of potholes is a major headache for everyone. The consequences of a deteriorating local road network are significant. It impacts 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.

3.The safety of other road users, particularly cyclists, is seriously compromised. Pedestrians, especially those who are older or vulnerable, can be left feeling anxious and isolated, afraid to leave their own homes.1 We decided to launch an inquiry into local roads funding and maintenance to look at these issues in detail and to make recommendations to address the problems and put them right.

4.The terms of reference for our inquiry are available on the Committee’s website.2

5.We received over 90 written submissions and held four oral evidence sessions, hearing from road users, the road maintenance industry, local authorities from across England, Transport for London (TfL) and Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) and Jesse Norman MP, who was at the time Minister of State for Transport with responsibility for roads. A full list of witnesses is included at the end of this Report; the evidence can be found on our inquiry page.3 We thank everyone who contributed to our work.

6.Our inquiry and this Report consider the situation in England; this issue is devolved across the rest of the United Kingdom. Our Report begins by considering the key issue that was flagged up to us throughout the evidence: funding. We then discuss three other issues: innovation, data collection and use, and collaboration and good practice.

7.We note that during our inquiry the Government acted on some of the issues on which we were taking evidence. On 31 March 2019 the Department for Transport (DfT) announced its intention to set up a new digital hub for experts to share and develop innovations; a new guide on best practice on pothole repair; a review of road condition surveying data and technology; and the establishment of a ‘Review and Audit Group’ in liaison with the highways sector to ensure adoption of best practice.4

The English Local Road Network (ELRN)

8.England’s road network consists of motorways, major ‘A’ roads, and local classified and unclassified roads. The vast majority of motorways and major ‘A’ roads form the Strategic Road Network (SRN) and are managed by Highways England (HE). All other roads are managed by local authorities and make up the English Local Road Network (ELRN). The Department for Transport puts the asset value of the ELRN at £400 billion and describes it as:

… the largest and most visible community asset for which local highway authorities are responsible. It is used daily by the majority of people and is fundamental to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the country.5

The then Minister, Jesse Norman, told us that the ELRN is a “very important national asset”.6

Box 1: Local road classification

The roads within the ELRN fall into the following four categories:

1. ‘A’ roads–major roads intended to provide large-scale transport links within or between areas.

2. ‘B’ roads–roads intended to connect different areas, and to feed traffic between ‘A’ roads and smaller roads on the network.

3. Classified unnumbered–smaller roads intended to connect unclassified roads with ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads, and often linking a housing estate or a village to the rest of the network. Like ‘minor roads’ on an Ordnance Survey map and sometimes known unofficially as ‘C’ roads.

4. Unclassified–local roads intended for local traffic. By length, most roads fall within this category.

Source: Department for Transport, Guidance on Road Classification and the Primary Route Network, January 2012

9.In England, local authority-managed minor roads7 make up 88% of road length but carry only 34% of motor traffic vehicle miles. Local authority-managed ‘A’ roads and motorways make up 9% of road length and carry 32% of motor traffic vehicle miles.8 As explained above, HE maintains the SRN of motorways and major ‘A’ roads, which accounts for 2% of road length and carries around 34% of motor traffic vehicle miles.9

Figure 1: Road length and traffic by road type, 2017

Source: DfT, Road conditions in England to March 2018, 31 January 2019

10.The Department for Transport (DfT) is responsible for funding local roads renewals and upgrades, while the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provides revenue support to local highways authorities for routine road maintenance. In addition to funding, central government has a key role in policy development and setting the legislative framework through which the local roads sector operates.10


11.The ELRN is managed by 153 local highway authorities. They are responsible for maintaining, managing and, where necessary, improving their portion of the network. This includes carriageways, footways, cycleways and verges and planting as well as drainage, street lighting, bridges and culverts. As well as a duty to maintain these assets in good order, they must promote safe and efficient road use by all types of users and meet increasingly demanding environmental standards.11 The Government is aware of the need to ensure that it is not just the road or highway that is properly maintained.12 Steve Berry, Head of Highways Maintenance, Innovation, Resilience, Light Rail and Cableways Branch at the Department for Transport, told us that the DfT had “been doing quite a lot of work recently in the footway and cycle management group, … looking at how highway authorities can understand more about footways and cycleways under a risk-based approach”.13

12.The patchwork devolution that has developed in England since 1999, and that gained pace after 2010, has given rise to inconsistencies in the powers available to local highway authorities to manage their transport networks and raise the financing to pay for their upkeep and enhancement. Ann Shaw, Director of Network Resilience at Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) and Danny Rawle, Highway Asset Management Engineer at Coventry City Council, told us how the devolved settlement works in the West Midlands. Ms Shaw explained:

Road maintenance for the seven West Midlands metropolitan authorities comes through the combined authority, and the capital block is handed out to the authorities based on road length. [There are] incentive funds and challenge funds that also come via that. The settlement given two or three years ago and how that has been carried forward has given us an indication of what our annual budgets are and how we can progress improvements on the highway network as part of that.14

Mr Rawle thought that this was “working very well within the authorities”, due to the holistic approach taken:

… it is understanding how we deliver our services, how the funding is distributed and how it can best be used across the whole network, looking not just at Coventry in isolation but at the whole of the west midlands. It is looked at in that way, and I think the current model is working well.15

Others, such as Leicestershire County Council, were concerned that:

A fragmented approach to planning and investment across numerous bodies (including the DfT, Highways England, Sub-national transport bodies and local highway authorities with differing tiers, powers and responsibilities) is not conducive to achieving seamless journeys. Road users can experience dramatic changes in standards and quality as they move between sections of road network managed by differing bodies.16

13.The skills and capabilities of local highway authorities also differ across the country, resulting in varying local road conditions. Some suggested that a solution to this would be to consolidate highway authorities, particularly in metropolitan areas. Matthew Lugg, President of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT), used the example of rationalising these responsibilities in Greater Manchester:

There are 10 separate district highway authorities, but there is now a Greater Manchester combined authority, so why could that not be the highway authority for all those districts, and not have each individual one having to resource the management skills and all the infrastructure? You could just do it once over a larger geographic area.17

On the broader point, he said that local government reform might be beneficial in rural as well as urban areas as there are parts of the country where agreement “can only go so far” because there are issues around governance and the management of procurement for highway maintenance “that mean you need a single authority rather than multiple ones” to achieve beneficial results. He went on to say that many local authorities would not in effect want to abolish themselves by agreeing to cede their highway powers to, for example, a Combined Authority and that the impetus for a strategic reform on this scale would have to come from Government.18 Rick Green, Chair of the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), agreed. He told us that the current situation is “very clearly suboptimal”, though he pointed to large rural councils where decision-making might be better placed at a lower level, to take account of significantly different geographies, weather conditions and traffic.19

14.Almost every journey begins and ends on local roads. The English Local Road Network (ELRN) is of critical importance in connecting people and driving economic growth. We agree with the then Roads Minister that the ELRN should be treated as an important national asset. Like any asset, it must be managed appropriately. While the ELRN is a national asset, its value as a local asset must not be overlooked. Individuals, families and communities depend on their local road network and it acts as the key arterial system that drives economic growth in our villages, towns and cities.

15.There is unnecessary tension between central and local government—one of which controls the funding for maintaining the ELRN and the other that has responsibility for doing the work.

16.While there was no agreement amongst our witnesses about the governance arrangements for the ELRN, there was some evidence that a profusion of highway authorities, particularly in areas where there are now multiple levels of accountability (e.g. Mayoral Combined Authorities), adds to confusion and diminishes transparency. We recommend that the Government commission an independent review of local highway responsibilities, to evaluate whether current responsibilities sit at the right level. We recommend that the review be completed within 9 months and that the Government respond to it within 12 weeks, setting out what actions it will take as a result.


17.There are ongoing concerns about the general state of the road network, the backlog of repairs and the cost of bringing these defects up to standard.20 For example, only 30% of respondents to the National Highways and Transport Public Satisfaction Survey (NHTPSS) were satisfied with how potholes and damaged roads are dealt with.21

18.The public understandably focus on the formation of potholes (or rather what they call potholes) as these are particularly visible. There are numerous other defect types such as cracking, stone-loss, rutting, depressions, loss of texture/grip, etc. that are either indicative of approaching failure/end-of-life or present a more significant deterioration than potholes. These defects essentially make up the estimate of the road maintenance backlog.22

19.The Department for Transport’s latest annual road condition data published in January 2019,23 showed a gradual reduction in the number of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ roads that should have been considered for maintenance in the five years to 2017/18 (indicating an overall improving road state), though most of this improvement occurred before 2016/17. Over the five-year period the number of unclassified roads requiring maintenance remained relatively flat. All road types saw a flattening out of the numbers requiring maintenance over the two years to 2017/18.24 We received several written submissions arguing that the data did not reflect the true state of the local roads network.25 For example, Hampshire County Council said:

The concern is that by looking at the reported condition figures in isolation they provide Government with a distorted view of the local road network. They do not provide a true reflection of road condition or convey the extent of the problem Local Highway Authorities are facing.26

Steve Berry, from the DfT, told us that the Department had not undertaken any detailed analysis of the differences between the DfT data and the annual Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey. But he told us that “the trend over time … follow[s] a similar pattern to our road condition statistics in terms of the amount of treatment”.27 In terms of differences, he emphasised that the ALARM survey covers a wider definition of the extent of the highway than the official road condition statistics do (including footways and pavements) and indicated that analysis of the respective (and likely similar) data sets may in part drive differences.28

20.The March 2019 AIA ALARM survey found that around 11% of the ELRN (excluding London) was in poor condition, with a further 25% showing some deterioration.29 It further estimated that over 22,000 miles of road are likely to require maintenance in 2019–20.30 AIA estimated that it would take 10 years to get local roads back into a reasonable ‘steady state’—a significant fall from the 14 years estimated in the 2018 survey.31 It also stated that the cost of a one-time ‘catch up’ to deal with the maintenance backlog would cost £9.8 billion, approximately £70 million per authority in England and £32 million per London authority.32 The average annual carriageway maintenance budget shortfall per authority in England was £4.1 million in 2018/19—despite an increase in funding from the previous year, costs have increased at a higher rate, meaning the shortfall has increased (from £3.4 million in 2017/18).33 However, AIA data shows that this is a significant decrease from the shortfall reported 20 years ago—of £9.14 million per authority in 1999.34

21.Anonymous comments provided to the 2001 AIA ALARM survey by local authority highway engineers make for familiar reading and show how concerns about inadequate funding have persisted for more than twenty years. One commented that in the ten years to 2001 local authorities had seen a 60% cut in their highway maintenance budgets, while another lamented the move from preventative to reactive maintenance and remarked that “… all we can do is plan to react”.35

22.Problems with reduced funding and highways maintenance are often only likely to become evident over several years, as Gateshead County Council said: “the main implications of past budget cuts are now only starting to become evident”.36

23.The then Minister for Transport, Jesse Norman MP, admitted to us that the ELRN is “not in a great state in many ways”, but pointed to a relative improvement compared to historical data:

Broadly speaking, as you will have seen, it has been improving in the A and B roads. The U roads and the less high-status roads are a different matter altogether. As you know, of course, there are a lot of different figures batted around as to how far this very important national asset needs a new round of capital investment.

[…] we are … subject to confirmation bias. We think the roads are in a terrible state, and everything we see seems to confirm that the roads are in a terrible state. We do not take a historical view. If we took a historical view, we might not come to quite that conclusion.

[…] There are lots of different forms of evidence one can have about it, but my point is that the situation of the local roads network is not good, but it is not new either.37

24.The less frequently a road surface is replaced or ‘re-carpeted’ with a new surface dressing the more prone it will be to degradation, the breaking up of patches and the formation of potholes. The rate of pothole formation is often a function of the deterioration of the underlying structural condition of the road network and must be reactively repaired by local highway authorities.38

25.The number of potholes filled annually and the cost per pothole of doing so has fluctuated over the past nine years, according to AIA data. We were told that some local councils have made substantial efficiency savings since 2010, implying that they are “doing more with less rather than competing in a race to low cost/low quality”.39 Indeed, overall the data shows that councils are driving higher value for money and the cost of filling a pothole is the lowest it has been in a decade:

Figure 2: Cost of filling potholes, 2010–19 (£ per pothole)

Source: AIA, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey 2019, 26 March 2019, p7

26.Potholes have direct and indirect costs to local authorities, motorists and other road users. Lincolnshire County Council told us that the absolute number of compensation claims has been increasing and that this may in part be due to technology, which has made it easier for road users to make a claim.40 The AIA reported that in 2018/19 there were an average of 535 claims for road user compensation (motorists, cyclists and pedestrians) against local authorities in England, at a total cost of £22.5 million (the bulk of which is rising staff costs):41

Figure 3: Road user compensation claims England, 2018/19

Source: AIA, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey 2019, 26 March 2019, p14

Kwik Fit estimated that the damage caused to vehicles from potholes in 2017 cost £915 million to repair, an increase of 34% on the £684 million repair bill in 2016.42 Based on its share of Britain’s car insurance market, the AA estimated that 3,500 claims had been made for pothole damage in 2017.43

27.Potholes pose a significant risk to non-vehicular road users—pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and others. DfT data shows that the number of cyclists killed or injured due to defective road surface more than tripled between 2005 and 2017:44

Figure 4: Cyclists killed or injured due to defective road surface, 2005–2017

Source: DfT, STATS19 database

28.Evidence shows that over the past 20 years spending on maintenance has increased and councils are getting more for their money as the cost of repairing and maintaining roads has fallen. However, the ‘one time catch up’ cost of repairing local roads—now over £9 billion—has seen a moderate increase and local authorities face a significant budgetary shortfall on the completion of necessary works. Road users’ lived experience is at odds with official data—drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all report large numbers of defects, and public portals like ‘Fix My Street’ name and shame egregious examples of maintenance failure.

29.In the past year local authorities paid out £22.5 million in compensation claims for damages arising because of defects in the road surface. We believe this taxpayers’ money would be better spent upgrading the road network and that the case for better maintenance, which should lead to fewer pay outs, is clear.

30.The fact that the ELRN has been allowed to decay to the point where it would take more than a decade to bring it up to a reasonable standard is a national scandal that shows a dereliction of duty by successive governments and individual local councils. The Government must act now to remedy this. We suggest how this might be done in the rest of this Report.

1 In May 2019 Living Streets found that nearly a third of adults over 65 felt reluctant to leave the house on foot due to the volume of cracks and uneven surfaces on surrounding streets; 60% of older people worried about the state of street surfaces, while nearly half felt that well-maintained pavements would make them more likely to go for a walk. From: “Elderly prevented from walking on pavements due to potholes, survey finds”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 2019

2 Transport Committee, “MPs launch inquiry into poor state of local roads”, 1 August 2018

4 DfT press notice, “£201 million road repair fund to resurface extra 1,000 miles”, 31 March 2019

5 Department for Transport (LRF0035)

7 Classified non-principal roads (‘B’ and ‘C’ roads) and unclassified (‘U’) roads

10 Department for Transport, Local authority highways maintenance funding: 2015/16 - 2020/21, November 2014, pp8–9

12 There is no statutory definition of the ‘extent’ of the highway. In many ways this is a question of fact. For example, the existence of a metalled track does not necessarily mean that the public is confined to that track and in many cases strips of land alongside the metalled track form part of the dedicated highway. For the purposes of this Report the use of the terms ‘road’ and ‘highway’ should be taken to include pavements, verges etc. unless stated otherwise.

16 Leicestershire County Council (LRF0058)

21 NHT Networks, NHT Public Satisfaction Survey - Key Results of the 2018 Survey; NHTPSS is an annual survey benchmarking public perspectives on, and satisfaction with, local authority highway & transport services. It includes responses from more than 813,000 members of the public collected over 11 years.

22 Kent County Council (LRF0068)

23 For background info about this publication, see: DfT, Road condition statistics guide, 31 January 2019

25 Thurrock Council (LRF0012); Suffolk County Council (LRF0029); Devon County Council (LRF0031); and Gaist (LRF0042)

26 Hampshire County Council (LRF0041)

34 AIA, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey 2001, 4 April 2001, Appendix [kindly provided to the Committee by the AIA]

35 AIA, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey 2001, 4 April 2001, sections 2 and 5

36 Gateshead Council (LRF0075)

38 Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) (LRF0044); and Lincolnshire County Council (LRF0077)

39 Institute for Transport Studies and measure2improve (LRF0067)

40 Lincolnshire County Council (LRF0077)

44 Similar official data is not available for pedestrians; STATS19 does not show pedestrians incidents where death or injury was due to a defective road surface; the closest it can be filtered to is to show incidents where pedestrians were killed or injured and where the road surface was defective

Published: 1 July 2019