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Surface tension

Permanent road closures and expensive damages claims are seen by some highway engineers as the inevitable result of spiralling cuts in road maintenance budgets. David Hayward reports from North Yorkshire.

Alan Burns is not a happy chap these days. He is spending an ever- increasing amount of time in magistrates or crown courts and has little opportunity for R&R.

He must 'defend' himself against negligence charges from riding schools and four wheel drive clubs, plus upward of 500 other damages claims a year. At the same time, he has to appear for the prosecution, seeking to repossess gypsy horses or accusing forestry companies of structural damage.

But Burns is neither lawyer nor criminal. He is the civil engineer in charge of maintaining all 9,511km of roads owned by England's largest county, North Yorkshire.

This somewhat bizarre description of his working week is accompanied by what most council highway engineers would - less than a decade ago - have thought an equally bizarre way to prioritise road repairs.

'The main criterion is whether the pothole or haunch damage is actionable,' says road maintenance manager Burns. 'If it is, the defect will be repaired immediately, but in a way that in the long term does more harm than good.'

Today, an increasing proportion of his fellow maintenance managers at other county councils would recognise his dilemma. The vast majority of North Yorkshire's road stock is in desperate need of repair.

Haunch deterioration, stress cracks in brittle surfacing long past its sell-by date, or the ever present potholes litter over 90% of the county's 8,300km of local and essentially rural highway.

The 700km or principal A-class roads are little better. And most of the remaining 511km of unsurfaced routes - little more than stone tracks across moorland that should, by law, be fit for road traffic - are currently no-go areas for wheeled vehicles.

Identified structural repairs for non principal roads total, conservatively, £130M. But to structurally maintain this ever deteriorating infrastructure, Burns has, this year, just £3.1M to spend.

This is his R&R - resurfacing and reconstruction - allocation from the council's £24.7M annual budget for overall maintenance of non-principal roads; a pot that must cover virtually everything from snow clearing and grass cutting to gully emptying and pothole filling.

Burns estimates that his budget for rural and unclassified road repairs equates to barely 30p per metre run of highway. But just to repair a common collapsing road haunch - destroyed by heavy farm vehicles or repeated traffic invasion of soft grass edges - costs 100 times that allowance.

In most cases R&R is not even on the financial agenda and Burns must revert to what he terms a cosmetic repair; patching, filling potholes or surface dressing with a thin layer of tar and chippings.

'What most structural damage needs is a proper engineered repair,' he says. 'What it gets is a thin surface dressing that covers the cracks and aids skid resistance, but does nothing to strengthen the road beneath.'

Worse, Burns claims, is that such cheap treatment hides increasing deterioration below until a major and sudden structural collapse forces costly emergency repairs. 'It clearly makes sense to do a decent job from the outset, but we simply cannot afford to,' he says resignedly. 'In today's financial scenario whole-life costing is a joke.'

Even patching and filling the county's potholes - over 2,000 potentially 'life threatening' ones at any one time - must be rationed; hence the prioritisation exercise.

In theory, any indent in road or pavement greater than 25mm could form the basis of a damages claim from motorist or pedestrian. And, as road quality continues to spiral downwards, so the claims in-tray on Burns' desk spirals upward in thickness.

An average 500 claimants a year means that council lawyers have to defend damages totalling up to £5M. 'The public is becoming increasingly more litigation conscious and I suspect some people look around for the best place to fall over,' says Burns wryly.

To add variety to Burns' court diary, the council is currently being sued for negligence by a riding school claiming its horses slip on the road surface, and by several four-wheel drive clubs. The latter claim that the council is not properly maintaining 'for vehicular use' a stone track which the rough terrain enthusiasts want to use for rallying.

In his prosecution role, Burns is also seeking damages for the harm caused, in the council's opinion, by gypsy horses to grass verges and by forestry lorries chewing up road surfacing.

The government-ordered Woolf report, which became operational this Spring, forces a council to prepare its defence more fully and much quicker than before. 'There will come a time when we spend more on claims than we do on repairs,' Burns argues.

So today he views potholes in a different light. 'We could be filling holes all day but now must first decide if they are a potential danger to the public and therefore legally actionable.'

If they are, one of his team of two dozen highway inspectors can instantly 'repair' them from a barrel of cold-lay bitumen kept in his van. Known affectionately as depot-mac, this tar macadam contains a solvent which delays the setting time of stored bitumen for up to a week.

To help at least control the pothole invasion, some £18M of the £24.7M non-principal road budget is ringfenced for these minor repairs. This leaves little for R&R, and for all the other maintenance services.

Rural grass verges, for example, can only be cut twice a year. But the grass keeps growing, as does public reaction - which vies with pothole moans for pride of place in the complaints league table.

The local road maintenance budget is, in theory, set by central government through its Standard Spending Assessment (SSA) allocation to the county covering a range of departments including education and social services (see box). This annual allowance is based on a package of factors including size of stock, population density and even snowfall levels.

This year Burns' boss, head of environmental management Mike Masterman, was entitled to £29M. He received £4.3M less.

The total SSA allocation arrives at county hall in Northallerton as a lump sum and it is up to local councillors to decide who gets what.

'This year, as usual, our allowance was raided mainly by increasing the allocation to the education department,' Masterman claims. 'It is purely a local political decision and clearly there are more votes in education than in highways.'

Such political bias is nothing new and Masterman's budget has halved in real terms over the last seven years. At the same time, the road deterioration curve has steepened.

He now estimates that he would need at least an extra £10M a year - every year - to simply flatten the downward curve. Despite numerous reports to council committees spelling out the problems, Masterman sees little chance of even getting his due allowance, let alone any extra.

'We are storing up for our successors a legacy of potential disaster,' he says. 'As engineers we know exactly what is needed but can do nothing but make the best of a bad lot.'

With the emphasis on safety and avoiding claims, rather than effective repairs, Masterman is now imposing, for the first time, 'temporary' 20mph speed restrictions on a 2km badly potholed section of rural road near the village of Flaxton. Pothole warning signs have been erected, allowing the council to argue that the road remains fit only for the speed designated.

With many of the potholes receiving their sixth refill, the temporary signs will remain for the 'foreseeable future' and Masterman anticipates even more serious restrictions to the motoring public.

'We have discussed internally the option of permanent road closures - an action I see as quite possible if budgets are not increased,' he says. Such an unprecedented move would be fraught with political and legal headaches as the council must prove in court that the road is 'no longer necessary'.

As department head, Masterman remains politically diplomatic. But some senior highway engineers can foresee another even more drastic scenario which might, they say, prove the only way to reverse politically motivated cost cutting.

'We always fight tooth and nail to win every damages claim and our track record is excellent,' Burns stresses. 'But if this, or another highway authority, lost a really expensive high profile claim, perhaps councillors would finally get the message.'

North Yorkshire self-funds claims up to £100,000 and, argues Burns, large multimillion pound damages would soon hit council budgets through increased insurance premiums.

'As a civil engineer it is in my nature to be positive and work to firm repair programmes,' Burns reflects. 'But these days I am continually forced to be negative and defensive whenever anyone complains about road conditions.

'Our roads generally are falling to pieces, but nobody listens.'

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