Ageing highways infrastructure is a growing problem worldwide but one that is felt particularly acutely in large parts of the UK, where the conflicting demands of increasingly heavy usage and challenging budgets mean a constant struggle to maintain road conditions.
Highways England has a major job on its hands managing the strategic road network. However, the picture across the wider spider’s web of local roads is perhaps an even greater challenge thanks to the inherently diffused arrangements for funding and planning the improvements needed to such vital assets.
Despite their recognised value to the economic health of the UK, the 2018 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (Alarm) survey, produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, paints a worrying picture. Just over 24,000km of local roads were described as in need of repair in the ensuing 12 months or face failure. The latest update was due just as New Civil Engineer went to press but given that the challenge has existed for years and with no grand gesture on the funding and planning front it is likely that the outlook will remain unchanged.
The survey also suggests that while the total highways maintenance budget across England and Wales last year increased by around 20% to £3.46bn, up from £2.88bn in 2016/17, that figure was £2.7bn a decade ago. This highlights the fact that budgets are barely keeping pace with inflation.
The ICE has urged the government to increase the use of “pay-as-you-go” roads to fund highways infrastructure work. In its annual State of the Nation report, the ICE warned that the rise of electric vehicles will lead to a drop in government income from fuel duty and consequently new funding streams must be found. The State of the Nation 2018: Infrastructure Investment report adds that 47% of the population would be in favour of a new system of road user charging, if it replaced current taxation streams. Alternatively a single one-off payment to restore all local roads to good condition would cost an eyewatering £9bn and take 14 years to complete, says the survey.
The money and how it is allocated is a key area for review, experts say. According to the Charted Institute of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) there are 12 ways in which highways authorities can apply for their funding, and almost entirely separate methods of receiving funding for new highway schemes as there is for maintenance and renewals. Confusion reigns even before it is split among a multitude of spending bodies.
CIHT president Matthew Lugg is also head of profession and local government at consultant WSP. He says that that funding is currently split across too many different highway authorities and it has led to diluted funding and duplication of effort. “Too many people involved [in highways maintenance] dilutes the available resources from the way they could be effectively used,” he tells New Civil Engineer. “If you had a blank slate about how to manage local roads in this country, you wouldn’t have so many entities.”
TOO MANY COOKS
Indeed, there are simply too many highways authorities in the UK, say 67% of key players in the highway sector according to a recent survey conducted by consultant Fitzpatrick Advisory. Those surveyed included local highways authorities of which there are 216. The fallout from this is that annualised funding for local roads is too thinly spread, and costs are being unnecessarily duplicated says Highways Term Maintenance Association (HTMA) chief executive George Lee.
He suggests that standard practice for local highways maintenance should be introduced for the benefit of local authorities, contractors and road users. “Can we produce a more standardised approach to maintenance so that you are getting a coherent standard across authority boundaries?” asks Lee. “If you had bodies cooperating and one standard across areas, it would easier for contractors to know precisely what they are working towards but also for road users, with no sudden change in the road environment.” Lee says that what is needed is a more centralised form of funding coupled with a holistic approach from the across the government. “Identifying how much funding is available for maintenance for local highways is difficult. Funding tends to be split across 11 different pots, and can require different criteria for funding, turning some of it into a potential lottery,” Lee says. “What we really need is more coherence in the funding that is available, and the government should be looking to take a much more holistic approach and to utilise the experience and knowledge that exists within the Department for Transport (DfT) and local highways authorities and the private sector to bring together coherent proposals for how maintenance should be funded.”
More radical among the suggestions submitted to Fitzpatrick’s survey is a proposed cut in the number of local highway authorities. This could involve reducing to just one body similar to Highways England, or to one per county, or one per region. But such a major overhaul to reduce the number of authorities is not the way forward, Lugg argues. Instead we should look at giving incentives for overlapping local authorities to combine forces.
“Radical change to the structure of 32 local government is not going to be achievable in our view,” he says. “However, at the less radical end, could combined authorities take over some of the highways powers? In the larger metropolitan areas, you have multiple district councils managing highways, each with their own resource base and their own contractors, and this means a lot of costs. “A single body would be much more efficient and effective way to deliver maintenance across that geographical area. This could be achieved with incentivisation.”
Adopting new, long term funding plans for local roads, similar to the Road Investment Strategy (RIS) for the strategic roads could also be key in helping ease the backlog of maintenance needs. RIS periods comprise five-year ring-fenced funding pots and have been in place since Highways England came into being in April 2015 – aligning it more with the arrangements for Network Rail and ousting the previously inefficient annual funding pot.
For the the first RIS spending period, Highways England handled a total roads spend of £15bn over the five years. Although the results have yet to be seen in full, a longer forward funding pipeline is an often quoted driver of efficiency in construction and engineering. Local authorities have no such guaranteed funding pots and their maintenance and asset management programmes are based around annual funding cycles, with no guarantees about how much they will get each year. These annual budget cycles combined with short-term political pressures mean that local authorities are prevented from taking the forward planning and strategic thinking approach that Highways England is employing on the strategic road network.
Fitzpatrick Advisory principal advisor Brian Fitzpatrick says the introduction of five-year funding pots are the “bare minimum” of what is needed to change in the local roads sector. “Change is coming to the sector,” he says. “This is a catalyst the sector has been crying out for and five-year funding pots are the minimum we can introduce going forward. “One of the benefits of a five-year programme is that it would start to address the culture. It’s not the technology, it is how we go about [maintenance]. “You need to start by understanding your network, you understand what you are striving towards and then you can bring in the tools.”
His views are echoed by Lee. “What we would be looking for is a five-year guarantee on consolidated funding that is available across England, and beyond that a 10-year commitment to invest in the local highways networks to ensure that we can get back to a position of stability,” explains Lee.
While this may be some way off, there is support from politicians. Transport minister Jessie Norman has committed the DfT to developing a business case to justify the developmet of similar five-year funding cycles for local roads. “In the coming years I want […] to move towards a transparent and strategic five-year settlement for local highways maintenance as part of this I’ve asked my officials to develop a business case to support further funding in this area,” Norman said late last year.
Lee says that if local highways authorities could borrow more, they could make use of invest to save concepts. An example is Blackpool’s Project 30 scheme. For Project 30 Blackpool Council borrowed £30M, £20M of which was immediately used to clear a roadworks backlog and develop a “proactive and planned” road maintenance schedule using the remaining £10M. It is predicted this scheme will result in savings of £100M in the next 25 years. Not all local authorities have the capacity to undertake their own Project 30 however, and a more widely suitable solution to the road maintenance backlog might be to adopt some elements of the scheme.
PROACTIVE, PLANNED AND PREVENTATIVE
Switching from reactive, to preventative maintenance could help engineers get ahead of the problem. The idea behind preventative maintenance is simple, roads are assessed and repaired before damage that is more expensive to repair occurs. In the long term, this type of maintenance is cheaper and more effective than reactive maintenance – repairing damage only when it occurs. The difficulty is in the timeframes this type of maintenance follows, as a large degree of forward planning is required.
Fitzpatrick says that local highways authorities are not making use of data to drive a preventative-approach as the issue stems again from the influence of yearly spending cycles. “Something we do not provide well is evidence-based prioritisation. A lot of local authorities will survey their networks every year and many will actually throw away that information because the yearly budget is matched to the need, and the year after they go through the same cycle again.”
“This means there is loads of information and data laying around but we haven’t got the time, the planning horizon or the capacity to weave this data into our thinking and build a more meaningful asset management approach.”
As with most of the construction industry, highways maintenance has been relatively slow in its uptake of new technology, says Fitzpatrick, suggesting that such a conservative mindset across the industry has been reinforced by years of under-funding. “We are reluctant to change the way things are done, and the lack of funding over the years has driven that mentality. The key to unlocking the ambition for change is addressing the cultural stalemate around highways and introduce new methods and new thinking.” Lee says one innovation that could make a transition to highways maintenance is building information modelling (BIM).
This can be used to generate estimates for capital costs of repairs. “Something that will become of greater significance in the next few years within the highways environment is BIM, to model the lifecycle of assets from a particular point of condition, to predict the lifetime capital investment needed and revenue support that will go into that.” Connected vehicles will also change the way roads are monitored. It is hard to generate accurate representations of such a vast array of roads infrastructure.
However, the rise of autonomous vehicles capable of reporting real-time data back to local authorities on the condition of the road they are using will aid the adoption of new maintenance practices.