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


66.In recent years there has been a welcome growth of innovation in the field of highway inspection and road management and maintenance. Individual councils, industry, tech companies and academia are working together to provide better and cheaper solutions to the challenges facing local highway authorities. The Government contributes to this effort by providing funding through the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK. The then Minister, Jesse Norman, also emphasised the importance of preparing the road network for a future in which Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) are in widespread use.116

Highways inspection and imaging

67.In recent years advances in video capture, big data and more accurate depreciation software have shown a potential to drive benefits to local highways authorities.117 We heard about some examples of innovations in highways inspection and imaging including:

a)Thurrock, York and Wiltshire councils and two private-sector SMEs, Gaist and SOENECS, are working on a DfT-funded trial to revolutionise the way potholes are identified and managed, through a ‘Pothole Spotter’.118 Advanced analytical software and high-definition cameras, attached to refuse collection vehicles and buses, provide images of the road surface, allowing maintenance to be prioritised.119 The DfT told us that there are currently ten official ‘pothole-spotter’ vehicles out on the roads and an electric bicycle has been added to the trial to assess the imagery collected from a cyclist’s perspective;120

b)Blackpool Council is leading on a digital inspector scheme with 8 councils, involving high definition cameras mounted on vehicles collecting data on road and path conditions, which is then analysed by computers to highlight where roads are deteriorating;121

c)Swindon Borough Council is conducting a trial of the use of smartphone sensors to collate road conditions;122 and

d)Suffolk Highways, in partnership with Computer Vision (CV) system suppliers Vaisala, is implementing an innovative automated road condition monitoring technology that uses data from connected vehicles to provide dynamic and continuous updates on road condition. This includes the identification of potholes, cracking and edge defects.123

Managing and maintaining highway assets

68.Technology, data analytics, new materials and repair methods also have the potential to play a more important role in managing highways assets. Cheshire East Council, for example, reflected the view of several witnesses, in saying that “continued research is required into the development of quick, safe and durable defect repair solutions”.124 We also heard about some examples of the innovations in managing and maintaining highway assets, including:

a)Suffolk Highways has trialled mobile asphalt plants, which heat up the existing material excavated from the road surface, blend it with other material and put it back in the hole. It is also looking into thermal road repairs.125 In January 2019 Radio 4 reported on the work of Dr Mujib Rahman, a former road-repair engineer (dubbed “the pothole doctor”). Dr Rahman has demonstrated that using infrared preheating improves the bond between the road and the repair, reducing the need for re-repairs;126

b)Automated paving technology can enhance and improve surfacing quality during the laying and compaction process by collecting data that can be combined with manufacturing information to create an accurate record of the condition and material composition of a road;127

c)Through its ‘SMART local highways and AV live labs’ initiative, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) is working with commercial partners and the DfT on a £25 million two-year project designed to bring digital innovation to local roads;128

d)There are a few examples of recycled plastic being used to fill potholes on local roads (for example Coventry, Cumbria and Enfield).129 In May 2018 the then Minister, Jesse Norman, said that recycled plastic materials had been used on a small proportion of the SRN for high friction surfacing, and on one short stretch of public road in England;130

e)Professor Phil Purnell of the School of Mechanical Engineering at Leeds University is working on a project to make potholes “self-repairing”, with the aspiration of zero disruption from street works within three decades. His team at Leeds is investigating the use of drones and 3D printing for preventative maintenance;131

f)Dr Alvaro Garcia, from the Nottingham Transportation Engineering Centre (NTEC), has been exploring how the addition of microcapsules of oil to asphalt could be used to create self-repairing road surfaces. The project has been partly funded by Highways England, and trialled on the SRN;132

g)Kent County Council, with Amey (contractor), University of Birmingham, MAP16, UI and Rezatec, is in receipt of funding for a local highway asset management technology incubator and a centralised digital hub for all asset management data. This would link dynamic network sensors to assets such as drainage, winter service (gritters) and gullies. It is hoped this will lead to a more efficient highways maintenance service and allow funding to go further;133 and

h)Graphene-based roads will be trialled under plans to reduce the number of potholes. The new road surface, known as Eco Pave, works by adding a small amount of a graphene-based additive to asphalt. Developers expect a UK test, possibly in London, following a successful trial in Italy where it is claimed to have boosted the lifespan of a road by 250%.134

Uptake of new technology

69.The uptake of new technology across local highway authorities is inconsistent.135 The reasons for this are varied and include insufficient or inconsistent funding, sometimes inappropriately targeted and that might be better spent elsewhere;136 the capacity of local authorities to bid for, procure and/or assess innovative products;137 and that the UK does not have the right incentives for innovation to grow to its full potential.138 The Road Condition Management Group (RCMG) also pointed to commercial difficulties for new products entering the market.139 There are also questions about how quickly and broadly innovations can be shared. Matthew Lugg of CIHT told us that “when there is new technology and innovation there is no central reciprocal way that it can be shared” and added that, although there is scope for transformational change in data collection practices, “because of the issue about skills and resources, authorities are not necessarily capable of taking that on”.140 We examine this further in Chapter 5, below.

70.The then Minister, Jesse Norman, and Steve Berry, Head of Highways Maintenance, Innovation, Resilience, Light Rail and Cableways Branch at the Department for Transport, acknowledged that at present there are unnecessary limitations on research, development and take up of innovative practices, in part due to a lack of cohesive funding. The then Minister said that he hoped a long-term funding settlement would “take off some of the dampeners that have been inhibiting innovation”.141

71.Mr Berry told us that the Department for Transport has directly spent between £25 and £30 million on road innovation funding to date,142 however the then Minister explained that it is difficult to establish a firm figure due to the Department’s indirect support for innovation through other pots of funding, such as the Transforming Cities Fund and the National Productivity Investment Fund.143 He also told us that innovation has its limits and that in many cases improvements can be driven through getting the basics right, or a ‘checklist’ system.144 He explained:

Have [local highway authorities] actually gone through all the little checks and balances, outcomes and tests that cover the whole network to make sure they are doing their job properly? That is really valuable. It is not direct innovation, but it is incredibly valuable. It is transformative in terms of value for money from a local authority standpoint. I do not want to get too lost in the word “innovation”.145

72.We asked Mr Berry and the then Minister how the innovation the DfT funds and supports can be pulled through into widespread use and scaled for affordable general use. Jesse Norman told us that his concerns were “more on the basic research side than at the applied end” and that he was less concerned with applications entering the marketplace than with “the deep research part and the academic support for transport as such” on the R&D side.146 It is easy to see how the transition from pilot to practice is well-supported by the DfT on technical innovations, but less obvious in terms of service or process.

73.The Department told us that it intends to carry out a review of the future of road condition monitoring and reporting following the outcome of the 2019 Spending Review.147 It has said that it will seek views on the current methodology used to monitor road condition as well as how councils and the wider sector can harness new forms of technology and data to improve local roads and infrastructure.148 Mr Berry from the DfT also highlighted a new digital intelligence innovation hub, working with academia.149 He told us that the hub:

… is looking at how we can work more closely with SMEs and academia. One of the problems that we are asking them to consider, for example, is the pothole problem. Could we look at it in a different way? We have tried and tested a number of repair technologies. What is out there now? For example, we are aware that some universities are working on 3D printing for potholes. How can we bring all of that together and then disseminate it more widely across the highway sector?150

74.We have heard about numerous examples of innovation. We are encouraged by the willingness of councils and the industry to innovate. We also applaud the then Minister’s obvious enthusiasm and support for this work. However, we are concerned that the disparate pools of funding for innovation could cause confusion and generate competing incentives. 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. We recommend the DfT, BEIS and Innovate UK collaborate to collate all innovation funding for local roads in one place and effectively disseminate this to local highway authorities. 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. We also recommend that the Government 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.

75.We welcome the DfT’s support for a new digital hub for experts to share and develop innovations. We want to see this active as soon as possible and ask the DfT in its response to this Report to set out how it will be funded, what it is expected to achieve, and how its effectiveness will be assessed. We recommend that DfT produce a report, within 12 months of the hub going live, that assesses the costs and benefits of the new digital hub.

76.Looking ahead to a future in which we may see connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) making increasing use of local roads, the then Minister told us that those roads need to be ‘good enough’ to accommodate these vehicles. While we caution against too optimistic a view as to the rapidity with which CAVs can be deployed and how quickly they may become a common form of transport, we accept the principle that these vehicles may require changes to road surfacing and indeed the technology embedded in and adjacent to those roads. However, the Department should not get carried away and lose focus from the urgent issues facing all current road users who struggle to travel along potholed and cracked streets. We recommend that the Department set out a timeline to show their expectation of how connected and autonomous vehicle technologies will evolve and enter service. This should include the Research and Development, setting of standards, procurement and deployment of infrastructure on roads needed to support CAVs, maintenance and management of such infrastructure through its lifecycle and showing how additional technology deployed in the roadway affects maintenance and renewal processes. This could be a useful supplement to the Department’s ongoing work around the Future of Mobility.

117 Local Government Technical Advisors Group (LGTAG) (LRF0023); Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) (LRF0028); North East Combined Authority (LRF0049)

118 Tarmac (LRF0083); for more information, see: http://www.pothole-spotter.co.uk/

119 Local Government Association (LRF0053)

120 Department for Transport (LRF0035)

121 DfT press notice, “Pothole fund boosted to repair roads after winter damage”, 26 March 2018

122 DfT press notice, “Pothole fund boosted to repair roads after winter damage”, 26 March 2018

124 Cheshire East Council (LRF0070)

127Highways innovations paving the way to a digital future”, Infrastructure Intelligence, 9 May 2018

128 Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) (LRF0028) and Prospectus: SMART Local Highways & AV Live Labs, August 2018

129 Qq239–240 [Stephen Hall, Cumbria County Council] and Q269 [Stephen Skinner, Enfield Council and Danny Rawle, Coventry City Council]

132MasterChef inspires Highways England funded self-healing road project”, The Engineer, 18 October 2017 and Highways England, Strategic Road Network Initial Report, December 2017, p67

134Super-strong graphene to tackle pothole plague”, The Times, 14 May 2019

135 Tarmac (LRF0083)

136 Q270 (Patrick Doig, Transport for London and Anne Shaw, Transport for West Midlands); Rochdale Borough Council (LRF0043); Lincolnshire County Council (LRF0077)

137 The Road Surface Treatments Association (LRF0008); South West Highway Alliance (LRF0080)

138 RAC Foundation (LRF0037)

139 Road Condition Management Group (subgroup of the UK Roads Board) (LRF0051)

144 The Minister referred to Atul Gawande’s 2011 book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

147 Department for Transport (LRF0035)

149 Announced in January 2019, see: DfT, Technological trials to help future proof roads, 31 January 2019

Published: 1 July 2019