Detractors of the recently confirmed detrunking of 3,000km of roads claim that local authorities will not be able to cope with the burden.
According to the latest National Road Maintenance Condition Survey (NRMCS), councils are already dealing with a £5bn maintenance backlog for local roads. The 22nd survey states that the overall condition of roads in 1998 was the worst ever recorded. Structural maintenance is 97% worse than 10 years ago and visual defects have risen 153%. The backlog has grown 20% a year for the last three years, and the burden of taking on detrunked roads could be 'extra bad news' for local authorities, according to construction industry economist Owen Simon.
But a positive thinker from the Local Government Association claims that the detrunking - the bulk of which is expected to happen in three to four years' time - could be the beginning of solving a longstanding problem.
Andy Elmer, head of planning, transport and environment at the Local Government Association, says that substantial funds coming in for relatively well maintained trunk roads could have a knock-on effect to the benefit of potholed and structurally defective local roads.
He says: 'After detrunking, local authorities will be seen to be spending more money on some roads than others. When they start running Best Value exercises they will ask if the money earmarked for detrunked roads is best spent on that part of the network or transferred to maintain other roads in the area.'
Discussions of how routine and capital maintenance of detrunked roads will be funded are continuing between the LGA and DETR. 'There has been a meeting of minds with ministers about the funding issue,' said Elmer. 'The Highways Agency is developing a formula to find out exactly how much it spends maintaining the 3,000km of roads set to be detrunked. Those amounts will then reappear in local authority coffers. Clearly there will be a lot more money available.'
In the short term, ring fenced payments will be negotiated on a route by route basis as the main stream of transfers is expected roughly halfway through the first five-year local transport plans (LTPs). When maintenance bids for detrunked roads are included in the five year LTPs, money received would be easy to raid for higher profile traffic schemes.
It remains to be seen whether or not road maintenance will go high enough up the political agenda to benefit from greater flexibility over transport budgets, says assistant borough engineer of Doncaster District Council Andrew McClusky.
'There is a danger that 'boring' maintenance schemes will be even more shunned in future and replaced by more glamorous traffic calming schemes,' he says. 'The public do recognise that road maintenance needs doing and the politicians are taking it more seriously but there is still a long way to go. Accident reduction schemes still have a greater priority.'
Borough engineers can at least console themselves that money from the new LTPs will be protected from other local authority departments like health and education, says Elmer. He says: 'In theory LTPs could be raided, but in practice, targets for delivery written into the plans will mean that if so many miles of roads are not maintained on the back of an LTP, a dim view will be taken about repeating that level of funding in future.'
Consultation with councils has already identified 3,000km of routes that they would like to bring under local government control. In a survey this year, 76% of local authorities in England were in favour of detrunking if funding was adequate. Engineers in the shire counties where detrunking will run into hundreds of kilometres are worried about funding, says McClusky.
Local authorities will be expected to follow the Highways Agency concept of 'route management' which would straddle county barriers. Many roads which are due to come under local government control are contracted to agents for another three or four years. Councils have the time to develop joint contracts, says Elmer. 'New local transport plans will require them to give consideration to what is happening cross borders. In terms of determining the needs for a highway authority area, an integrated approach will help.'