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Is there a north/south divide in road maintenance funding?

Paul McCormick

NCE’s pages have been full of expert comment about flooding in southern England in recent weeks, but while we prepare for an inevitable re-allocation of infrastructure expenditure let’s not forget the familiar mistake of forgetting the roads agenda.

While this winter’s floods were a disaster for the 5,000 homes affected, there are relatively inexpensive ways to prevent a repeat through better maintenance regimes.

In parts of the UK, however, the road network is being allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that I fear driving will become the preserve of the rich, further widening the north-south divide.

I started my career as a trainee technician in highways at Leicestershire County Council in 1983, and regular maintenance was part and parcel of what we did: there was far more ditch clearing, water course management and highway maintenance before generations of cost cutting took their toll.

If I were designing a road in Somerset now I would account for a higher frequency storm, put the road on a higher embankment and on the coast add more protection from waves. On railways I would ensure ballast couldn’t be washed away from under tracks.  However, this approach works, of course, as long as the client is prepared to pay for these extra costs.

But while debate has hinged on whether flood defences should be improved or major infrastructure should be built, I want to throw a third option in the ring: improving roads north of Watford.

Away from the political intelligentsia’s metropolitan gaze a national problem is growing, with highway maintenance seeing far higher levels of expenditure proportionately in the south-east.

Some say this can be justified by higher traffic volumes and a dense population, but we will never ease the north-south divide while this situation grows.

My colleagues in the north believe projects are approved less frequently than in the south-east – a situation that would begin to be resolved if more spending was devolved from Whitehall to regional authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

Let’s take four burning problems on the regional road network right now:

  • Overall, there needs to be a greater level of road maintenance across the UK. The situation is so stark that the Highways Term Maintenance Association warned at Christmas that more money must be found to redress the backlog of maintenance and local authorities and the private sector must collaborate better to achieve the 30% savings required by 2030.
  • The M6 Toll was built on the assumption that people would use it, but lorries find the charge prohibitive and we are left with a still-congested M6 and an empty toll road. 
  • Off motorways we need better rail and road interchanges, with Luton Airport Parkway and East Midlands Parkway, too far from city centres and motorways to be of real help.
  • Managed motorways – using the hard shoulder – are a great short-term improvement and can add to capacity for five to seven years, but this is only a sticking plaster on a bigger problem outside the south-east.

Road travel is still increasing, and I can’t help thinking that Government thought that when there was a slight fall in miles travelled in the recession the need for improvement had been eased.

My worry is that driving in the north will become a preserve for the wealthy in the future, as the cost of petrol rises and ministers decide that tolls and charges are the only way to fund much-needed improvements in the regional road network.

High Speed 2 will be great for Britain, and the events of winter 2014 show that flood defences must be improved. But for the long-term prosperity of Britain we need to also be investing in the whole of the road network.

The last thing we want is for our children to have to commute to London from a northern England that is ailing - because its roads network is falling apart.

  • Paul McCormick is director of transportation at AECOM

 

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