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Highways maintenance: The bumpy road ahead

Alasdair Reisner

The UK is the sixth biggest economy in the world. Yet this economic strength often appears to be sustained in spite of, rather than because of, one of the country’s most valuable assets.

According to the World Economic Forum, the UK comes a dismal 28th in the international rankings for our roads infrastructure. While sometimes congested, our strategic roads are typically of reasonably high standard. But at a local level a lack of investment and maintenance has created a patchwork network that in some cases is arguably not fit for purpose.

Earlier this month a survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance showed that the estimated gap in funding – the sum that would be required to bring the local roads of England and Wales up to a ‘reasonable’ level – has risen to £12bn, its highest ever level.

And yet these local roads are vital for many journeys, whether for business or the general public, and this is going to continue to be the case. Currently, too much of the money spent on roads in England and Wales goes on patching potholes and fixing sudden failures. Sustained investment up front, rather than repairing damage after the event, is a far more efficient use of funds. We have to start tackling the infrastructure deficit that has built up in Britain in all sectors – not just in road – rather than continually papering over the cracks.

Ask any politician canvassing on the doorstep and you will find that tackling local road quality is a vote winner. And it makes economic sense too.  Such activity delivers jobs and growth that our communities and businesses rely upon. Last year our Securing our economy: The case for infrastructure report shows that for every £1 invested in infrastructure, £2.84 is returned to the economy, while the cost of the UK having infrastructure which fell short of typical developed economy standards was £78bn each year between 2000 and 2010.

But at the moment the funding to do this work seems beyond reach. We believe the current model for highways maintenance funding must be reviewed. We have proposed wider use of prudential borrowing by local authorities, while consideration should also be given to private finance approaches and perhaps even the targeted use of local authority reserves. Steps must be taken to ensure a strategic approach to investment, and that investment must match the scale of the task.

We have called for a one-off programme of intensive improvements to local roads which would significantly reduce the long-term cost of maintaining the network. What is clear is that we can’t take a ‘business as usual’ approach. Unless we radically reform the roads funding model, the UK will continue to suffer the consequences of local roads that act as a drag on the wider economy.

  • Alasdair Reisner is chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association

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