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Thousands of UK highway bridges "substandard"

Union Chain Bridge over River Tweed

More than 3,000 council-maintained road bridges in Great Britain are “substandard” according to new research by the RAC Foundation.

Analysis of data received from 199 of the 207 local highway authorities in the UK shows that 3,203 structures over 1.5m in span were unfit to carry the heaviest vehicles, including lorries of up to 44t.

The RAC said that many of the bridges had weight restrictions and others were subject to programmes of increased monitoring or even managed decline.

It said the 3,203 bridges represented 4.4% (about one in 23) of the roughly 72,000 bridges on the local road network.

The number of substandard bridges is 35% greater than that estimated by the RAC Foundation to have been substandard two years earlier.

The road charity said that if money was no object, councils would ideally want to bring 2,110 of them back up to standard.

But it said budget restrictions meant councils only anticipated 416 would have the necessary work carried out on them within the next five years.

The one-off cost of bringing all the substandard bridges back up to perfect condition would be around £890M it said, the equivalent of £278,000 per structure.

The total cost of clearing the backlog of work on all bridges – including those that are substandard – is estimated at £3.9bn.

However, it said councils were currently spending just an eighth of that – an estimated £447M – per year maintaining their entire bridge stock.

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding said: “It’s the pothole backlog that normally hits the headlines but it is easy to forget all the other aspects of road maintenance that councils are involved in; from clearing ditches to cutting verges to maintaining bridges.

“In the face of growing traffic volumes and ageing infrastructure the danger is that without an adequate long-term funding settlement we will see more rather than fewer bridges with weight restrictions, with the backlog bill getting bigger all the time.”

According to the research, local authorities cited “funding” and “skill shortages” as the biggest challenges relating to bridge maintenance over the next 10 years.

The survey of local highways authorities was carried out with the help of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economics, Planning & Transportation (Adept) national bridges group.

Adept bridges group chairman Liz Kirkham said: “The figures identified by the RAC Foundation survey present a true picture of the funding backlog our members face.

“A growing number of substandard and restricted bridges that are not adequately maintained affect journey times and for rural communities in particular have an economic impact, creating barriers to growth.”

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “Local highway authorities are entirely responsible for maintaining their bridges. We have provided a record £6.1bn up until 2021 for roads maintenance outside London, which councils can prioritise to help repair and strengthen bridges.”

The 10 county councils in Britain with the highest number of substandard bridges are:

Local AuthorityNumber of bridgesNumber of substandard bridgesProportion of substandard bridges

Devon

2,689

249

9%

Somerset

1,459

210

14%

Essex

1,567

160

10%

Northumberland

964

148

15%

Cornwall

1,008

127

13%

Suffolk

923

121

13%

Lancashire

1,476

93

6%

Cumbria

1,911

71

4%

Gloucestershire

961

69

7%

Cambridgeshire

878

64

7%

The ten local councils in Britain with the highest proportion of substandard bridges were:

Local AuthorityNumber of bridgesNumber of substandard bridgesProportion of substandard bridges

Slough

36

17

47%

Bristol

140

52

37%

Croydon

11

4

36%

Islington

6

2

33%

Middlesbrough

63

18

29%

Hammersmith and Fulham

4

1

25%

Kensington and Chelsea

4

1

25%

Blackpool

21

5

24%

Conwy

234

51

22%

Bracknell Forest

123

21

17%

  

AuthorityNumber of bridgesNumber of substandard bridgesProportion of sub-standard bridges

Highways England

12,184

166

1%

Transport Scotland

2,440

33

1%

Welsh Assembly

1,263

48

4%

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