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Scrap patch and mend and think long term instead

Mark Hansford

Watching the world’s finest cyclists gliding along the super-smooth roads of North and South Yorkshire this weekend you’d be hard pressed to see why the UK is heading firmly towards a highways maintenance crisis.

But then local authorities in charge of the 400km of roads on the route of the Tour de France’s UK Grand Depart have lavished almost £6M in improvements on them in the build up to the race - that’s according to figures unearthed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

If only local authorities could devote the same love and attention to the rest of England & Wales’ 293,000km of locally-maintained roads.

Because here the maintenance backlog now stands at £12bn. And that’s up £1.5bn in the past year alone; a situation worsened by two severe winters.

And what’s the government’s response been to that? A paltry £168M fund to fix potholes on top of an extra £103.5M offered to flood-affected councils for road repairs in March. It’s barely going to scratch the surface.

The problem is not going to go away. Quite the opposite if the government’s own traffic projections predicting a potential increase in local traffic of more than 40% by 2040 are borne out.

Something, surely has to change.

Private finance appears to be out for the moment, despite great successes in Portsmouth - home of Britain’s first highway maintenance PFI - where potholes have now been all but eliminated 10 years into the contract.

So where else can the money come from? Ring-fencing fuel duty has been mooted many times before, and now council bosses - through the Local Government Association - are back on it. Investing just 2p per litre of fuel duty back into road maintenance would help councils bring highways up to scratch within a decade, the LGA says.

The Treasury has always resisted such a move, with fuel duty - currently 57.95p per litre - contributing more than £33bn each year to government coffers.

But many experts - including government advisor and Mouchel director of public services Matthew Lugg - support what the LGA is saying.

“Local roads are deteriorating and deteriorating fast,” he tells us this week. “If PFI funding is not available to us anymore we need some other form of funding mechanism and so hypothecating fuel duty income is a good idea.”

It becomes then a matter of priorities when deciding where best that £33bn of fuel duty revenue be spent. And enter here Sir John Armitt and his independent infrastructure commission.

Now with official Labour Party backing, Armitt’s plan would become a reality should Ed Miliband snatch power in May 2015.

Armitt’s vision is enticing. A long-term vision for infrastructure that goes beyond the election cycle; one that is properly prioritised and funded and overseen by a commission with a remit to hold individual spending departments to account on delivery.

If such a commission came about - and it would need a Labour win as the Conservatives have already ruled it out - it would be intriguing to see where road maintenance would sit in the long list of priorities. Higher than today, surely?

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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