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Report warns of cost threat to roads

England’s local roads are under attack from increasing traffic, severe winters, higher repair costs and dwindling highways funding, the local government public spending watchdog said last week.

Maintaining England’s 380,000km of local roads costs 50% more than it did 10 years ago, says a report published by the Audit Commission.

But in the next three years there will be a 26% drop in government revenue funding for local authorities and 16%less capital funding via local transport plans, says the report.

But road traffic is expected to increase by more than 30% by 2025 and damage to the roads by utility company streetworks is costing councils nearly £50M every year.

Three quarters of councils have cut road spend

Research by the Labour Party, also published last week, said that the 73% of councils had already cut road maintenance spending this year to address the cuts.

The Audit Commission highlighted ways that councils could get more for their money, including cost-saving collaborations with neighbours, asset management to show when road maintenance will be most effective, new ways of keeping residents informed, and weighing short-term repairs against long-term resilience.

There is evidence that the collaborative approach being successful does exist, said the Audit Commission. And collaboration can even include the Highways Agency.

“Sadly we found collaboration between councils to be rare, with too few councils procuring in cost-saving partnerships”

Audit Commission chairman Michael O’Higgins

The Midlands Highway Alliance is the first such collaboration. It was established by 13 councils and the Agency and estimates it has delivered £5.1M savings for councils and £7.8M for the Agency in its first three years. It is seeking a further £14M of savings between 2010 and 2014. Ten local authorities in the East of England have also formed an alliance to save £6M over five years, with £3.3M from shared back office costs alone.

“Sadly we found collaboration between councils to be rare, with too few councils procuring in cost-saving partnerships,” said Audit Commission chairman Michael O’Higgins.

“Roads costs are rising while councils’ belts are tightening. Improvement in A-roads seems to have stalled, and the road network overall is starting to deteriorate.

“Our report aims to help councillors maintain their local network against a backdrop of reduced funding. Roads in disrepair can put the brakes on trade, economic prosperity, even emergency services. But a well-maintained network helps people, goods and services to move freely and safely.”

New funding mechanisms needed

The Local Government Association said that while councils were seeking to learn best practice to save costs, central government had to explore new and innovative funding mechanisms − such as tax increment financing and considering further tolling − to fill the gap in road spending.

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