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Highways special: Is £6bn enough to address Britain’s pothole problem?

The government has pledged £6bn over six years to help councils fix local roads, a figure that includes a £578M fund to reward those that can demonstrate efficiencies. Is it enough to address Britain’s reactive maintenance culture?

In A day in the Life the Beatles famously sang about there being 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. According to legend, they took their inspiration from a newspaper report which conjured up the whimsical statistic that there were enough potholes in the northern town to fill the Albert Hall. No information was available to establish what the exact figure for Blackburn is these days, but if nothing else, the song shows just how long the pothole problem has been exercising our politicians and providing the press with a snappy headline. 

Perhaps the perennial nature of the issue is one of the reasons why the government’s pledge to spend £6bn improving local roads between 2015 and 2021 has met with such a mixed response from councils, engineers and lobbyists since it was announced just before Christmas.


Credit: Flickr _chrisuk

The investment amounts to £978M a year shared between 115 councils – enough in the words of the Department for Transport (DFT), to fix “18M potholes across the country”. But no sooner had the announcement had been made, the ICE had issued a statement indicating that the fund was not the silver bullet needed to address the repair backlog on Britain’s local roads.

“The £6bn additional funding […] will provide a welcome boost if it survives a post-General Election spending review,” said ICE director general Nick Baveystock. “However, given the one time road maintenance ‘catch-up’ cost has been estimated at £12bn this year, a significant gap will remain in local authority revenue budgets.”

The £12bn catch-up cost Bavestock referred to was derived from of a survey carried out by the Asphalt Industry Alliance in April last year, but a more recent Freedom of Information request sent to local authorities by the Press Association has revealed further details about the scale of their backlog bills.

Councils wrestling with the biggest repair bills included: Leeds City Council, which needs up to £100M to complete repair work; Gloucestershire County Council, which requires £86M; and the London borough of Islington, which needs £79M. Other councils facing substantial repair bills include: Oldham Council (£60M); Rochdale Borough Council (£58M); and Swindon Borough Council (£40M).

To put the figures into perspective, Leeds Council has been given £45.4M by the government over six years – not to be sniffed at, but nearly £55M shy of the total needed to meet its backlog. Meanwhile, Oldham has been pledged £12.8M, some £43M short of the sum needed. To see where the rest of the money will be allocated, click here.

Nobody was available for comment at Leeds City Council, but the local authority issued a statement suggesting the sum would merely plug a gap rather than fix the underlying problem. “Despite further funding recently being made available to tackle this problem, which is welcome, it is not enough to see a dramatic turnaround in road conditions and will still mean we have to prioritise our work in the areas most in need.”

But prioritising and targeting work would appear to be exactly what the Department for Transport (DfT) wants councils to do. Rather than fixating on the amounts of money that have been pledged, some are saying that councils should focus instead on the way the DfT is trying to change Britain’s make-do-and-mend approach to local road maintenance. Some £578M of the £6bn has been set aside for an incentive fund to reward those authorities that can demonstrate that they are repairing their roads efficiently and carrying out cost-effective improvements in line with the recommendations of the DfT-backed Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP).

“Despite further funding recently being made available to tackle this problem, which is welcome, it is not enough to see a dramatic turnaround in road conditions and will still mean we have to prioritise our work in the areas most in need.”

Leeds City Council

Mouchel’s director of public services Matthew Lugg has been seconded to the DfT and its HMEP to develop the self-assessment questionnaire that will be launched in March to band local authorities, and to determine how much of this incentivised funding they get. He says the ability to produce evidence of good asset management will be key to securing more of the pot.

“What we’ve been working on will be no great surprise as it focuses on everything we’ve been promoting through HMEP,” says Lugg. “Asset management will be top of the tree because the reality is that for whatever reason it’s still not embedded in the way many local authorities operate.”

Colas chief executive David Craik, who spoke to NCE last month about the importance of investing in local roads, is among those who think this is real a step forward. “If you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t even start to fix it,” he says. “I’ve had this argument time and time again on inspections. People say the more you inspect the more faults you find. Yes, but the more you inspect, the more informed decisions you can make.

“The £500M isn’t going to solve all of the issues with the network, but it will persuade people and incentivise people to diagnose what is wrong with their networks and then you’re on the road to recovery.”

Potholes Portsmouth road PFI

Road resurfacing being carried out by Colas as part of the Portsmouth PFI

Lugg says the other parts of the questionnaire will focus on good delivery through the use of modern contracts that incentivise the contractor and encourage innovation and supply chain collaboration. A premium will also be placed on communication and engagement with the public to recognise their needs. The final part will focus on collaborative working between local authorities in a given geographic area.

“My view is that the smaller local authorities are increasingly going to struggle and if they don’t pool resources over geographic areas, then they will continue to do so,”

Matthew Lugg, Mouchel

“Despite my best efforts, we’re still not seeing enough take up of collaborative working between local authorities,” says Lugg. “We appreciate that it can be quite challenging between vested interests and political agendas in those local authorities. But my view is that the smaller local authorities are increasingly going to struggle and if they don’t pool resources over geographic areas, then they will continue to do so.”

Lafarge Tarmac Contracting worked on a four-year project to address Blackpool Council’s highways and footways maintenance backlog. The company’s managing director Paul Fleetham likes the fact that more money will be made available to those local authorities that can produce the most efficiencies, and hopes that the incentive to collaborate will encourage more consistency about the way different local authorities work.

Local Highways Maintenance Funding: 2015/2016 to 2020/2021

Road maintenance spending

“What we see is so many different procurement routes, we see a lack of consistency in the way works are procured,” he says. “They can be through PFI or competitive dialogue or the cheapest wins on a bill of quantity and then when it comes to designs and specifications, there’s a complete lack of consistency in the way things are done. Obviously the HMEP is looking at these sorts of things but I still think there’s more that could be done to improve consistency.”

Others wonder what will happen to those local authorities that fall foul of HMEP’s ranking system.

Hounslow Highways service director Rob Gillespie, who is responsible for maintaining the roads pavements and street lighting across the borough of Hounslow under a PFI scheme (see box) says: “If a local authority is failing to do the planning advocated by HMEP and its roads are already bad, it’s not going to get any incentive funding and its roads are going to keep getting worse. I don’t know where that leaves anything.” 

How Hounslow resurfaced 216km of roads

As some councils look to see what they have been allocated from the Department for Transport’s £6bn pot, others have exempted themselves from central funding altogether by going down the PFI route. The London Borough of Hounslow has resurfaced 216km of roads and refurbished 153km of pavements as one of five pathfinder PFI projects.

Hounslow Highways

Ringway Hounslow Highways service director Rob Gillespie says the number of defects raised on the borough’s highways for the last two years has gone from 1,500 a month to just 300 a month now. Similarly the number of public liability claims against the council has decreased significantly.

Gillespie admits that PFI is a politically sensitive term but thinks the model works for local roads.  “We believe PFI sits better in highway maintenance than it does in building a school or a library because there is also an underlying day-to-day services contract where we do the street cleansing, we do the reactive repairs and we maintain the street lights,” he says.

“There’s a lot of scepticism from different parties saying you might decide not to spend all the money, but if we don’t spend the money we’ll get penalties later on because we haven’t got the condition up. There are a lot of good performance mechanisms in these contracts which are very challenging, but very few authorities, no matter their size, would aspire to that type of improvements we’ve seen in Hounslow.”

In response, Lugg says: “The incentive fund is designed to incentivise rather than penalise councils. HMEP is already working hard to support those local authorities who are struggling most and the self-assessment process will further identify those Band 1 authorities which will need most help and support. Our ambition is by the end of 2021 to get all local highway authorities in the top category.”

Similarly, he says the intention is not to name and shame local authorities by producing league tables of those that are performing well and those that are performing badly. “Instead of saying it’s a good thing to do, we’re actually saying this is something you should do and if you don’t do it, you will miss out,” he says. “When you’re potentially going to lose 15% of your allocation by the end of the period in 2021 and you’re a large local authority, you could be talking about £1.5M which is significant when you’re struggling on the revenue side and your budget is being cut.”

So back again to the question of whether the £6bn is enough to bring all of Britain’s local roads up to scratch. Probably not, but at least there seems to be a genuine attempt to get to grips with the scale of the problem.  

Perhaps the last word ought to go to Craik, who makes the reasonable observation that councils would be wise to worry just as much about manpower as they do about money.

“Even if the government came up with the £12bn of funding necessary for repairs today, we wouldn’t have a chance of delivering it because there are not enough people, plant or materials,” he says. “What the DfT is doing looks to be right to me. It seems to be saying, get your asset management plans in order and come up with some considered investment proposals first. We’re not going to get back to where we want to be in the next two to five years; it might take 10 years or 15 years but it’s the start of a journey to get there.

“It’s been many years since we have had a strategy or a view from government that’s given us any significant hope and I think this is really good. If there is continuity of workload and there’s a forward plan that people can look at, we as a contractor will invest in the people, plant and facilities.”

What do you think about HMEP’s pothole incentive fund? Join the discussion on NCE’s LinkedIn Group:

Can you find the holes in the Tory election poster?

The Conservatives might be taking a proactive approach to addressing the state of our local roads with the £6bn pothole fund but the party’s approach to the road in its recent election poster is a little more superficial. It transpires that the party used a stock photograph of a German road to represent Britain’s “road to a stronger economy” and that it airbrushed the image to remove cracks and potholes in the road surface. Couldn’t they have used an image of one the beautiful new roads delivered in Blackpool or Hounslow?

Tory road election poster

Readers' comments (1)

  • One very evident consequence of penny-pinching over highway maintenance is poor supervision. For example, I live in a part blacktop and part PQ concrete road that someone decided several years ago to treat with one of the then newer thin bituminous overlays. Time has revealed that where the spreader was correctly adjusted, the material used was adeqquate, but we now have many patches that have scabbed off and it is all too plain that the machine was set far too low, presumably to cheat on the quantity of material used. It is an old, old trick, but who let them get away with it? Peter Fells

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