Osborne has prioritised road-building, so why do local roads still wait 33 years to be re-surfaced?

Paul Fleetham

The UK roads network is vital to socio-economic prosperity and it is good that infrastructure is high on the political agenda.

Last week’s announcement of over £15 billion investment in the strategic highways infrastructure is welcome news that will help improve capacity and connectivity. More than 80 big ticket schemes, including a long-awaited plan to tunnel under Stonehenge, have been earmarked by the chancellor, which Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, hailed as a transformation of “some of the country’s most important strategic routes”.

Set against this optimism, it is important not to lose sight of some key facts. Whilst clarity of the project pipeline is very welcome, transport budgets are not protected and the “deliverability” of these projects need to be assessed in the cold light of day. Historically, investment in roads has been the first victim of austerity measures and there is concern about whether the funding will survive as a new or re-elected government grapples with increasing economic challenges.

On current projections, principal roads on the local network have to wait on average 33 years to be resurfaced.

Secondly, big ticket projects and major infrastructure spending initiatives must be underpinned by well-maintained local roads, which account for 98% of the UK’s highways network. Strategic routes are undoubtedly important; but local roads should not be the poor relation – they play a vital role in supporting the strategic network and wider UK regional development.

The Department for Transport (DfT) found that there has been a big increase in the number of local roads that require repair since 2010. And overall, more than 17% of our local roads – over 19,000 miles – require maintenance work. The figures also show that real-term spending on all maintenance on local authority minor roads has dropped by 20 per cent since 2010 (from £2,221m to £1,78m).

A recent report by the Local Government Association has shown how the government has earmarked £1.4m per mile for maintenance of the strategic roads network over the six-year period to 2021, but only £31,700 per mile for local roads over the same period. On current projections, principal roads on the local network have to wait on average 33 years to be resurfaced.

Short-termist ‘stop-start’ funding must be replaced with a long term strategic approach to maintaining and improving vital local road assets

So, what must be done? Delivering a strategic plan for both strategic routes and local roads is vital to the long term efficiency and sustainability of our roads, and to supporting the UK’s ongoing economic recovery. A piecemeal, short-termist “stop-start” funding cycle must be replaced with a long term strategic approach to proactively maintaining and improving our vital local road asset.

One way of doing this is adopting an asset management approach to local roads and plan for their upkeep over a much longer period of time, rather than a five year term of government. We must increasingly use data to understand road conditions, plan effective asset management and spend budgets more effectively. This must be matched by adequate funding for local roads.

Overall, we simply cannot afford to neglect local highways. They are integral to the UK infrastructure network and, in fact, sustain the regions and support local economies. Local roads must not be overlooked and remain a priority on the political agenda.

Paul Fleetham is managing director at Lafarge Tarmac Contracting