What is the best way of determining the state of Britain's highways, short of driving around yourself and noting the potholes? The government has its National Road Maintenance Condition Survey but that lost credibility for saying matters were improving when they were not.
Better by far is ALARM, the wonderfully acronymed Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey. This is run by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) which is funded by the UK's asphalt and bitumen producers.
This year, ALARM reported a 30% increase in the shortfall between highway maintenance spend and what is actually needed, from £1,000M to £1,300M.
It also stated that claims against local authorities for injuries and vehicle damage caused by poorly maintained roads had risen to nearly £1M a week. ALARM's claims were backed by statistics and analysis which gained wide publicity and must have caused unease among those who set funding levels for roads.
'We believe ALARM plays a part in making the government aware of the true state of our roads and does impact funding, ' says AIA chairman Julian Peake.
'The facts and figures in the survey come from the people who look after a substantial proportion of the UK roads network, in the hope that it will help provide better roads.'
Each year, the AIA distributes questionnaires to all local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. Take up for the 2001 survey was about 40%. Highways staff are asked what their authority's budget is, how much they get to spend, what they actually need and what their resurfacing frequencies are.
Data is collated and analysed by an AIA panel. The facts are not embellished but allowed to speak for themselves.
'The numbers are not ours, ' says Peake.'They come from engineers on the ground who really know how things are. The AIA merely serves as a conduit to obtain the information and publish it to as wide an audience as possible.'
So what exactly is the AIA?
Formally, it is an alliance of the Refined Bitumen Association and the Quarry Products Association asphalt producing members, established 'to promote the benefits of modern asphalt to the industry, specifiers, government and the general public'. It is a small but effective lobby group with a good story to tell for the benefit of its members.
Asphalts have improved remarkably in the last half dozen years or so and are still going.
They can be laid as much thinner surfacings than they used to be, using less material and minimising disruption through speed of application. Once down, they can be trafficked immediately Above all, asphalt can provide quiet running surfaces. High levels of skid resistance and low spray in wet weather are other benefits.
'The alliance publishes a twice yearly news letter, Asphalt Now, and runs a website to help get our messages across, ' Peake says. 'And local authority focus groups are held to which key local authority personnel are invited, so that we can maintain an understanding of their current position and needs.'
The AIA contributes to government reviews and consultative documents on roads maintenance and is active in keeping MPs informed on transport matters. Major issues include the ring fencing of funds intended for roads maintenance and best value, to obtain more and better kilometres of surfacing for government's cash.
Getting back to ALARM, Peake emphasises that the AIA's most high profile initiative is not overtly pro asphalt. 'We're trying to draw attention to the fact that Britain hasn't got what it needs - a well maintained roads network which is fundamental to the country's overall well being.
Funding is crucial. Given adequate levels, we can provide superb materials with which to do the job.'