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Sydney Lenssen Who can rescue crumbling roads?

Last July Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched his New Deal for Transport. Among a host of intentions, it promised that improved road maintenance was the Government's first priority.

One year on, the maintenance of Britain's roads is worse than ever. Rather than John Redwood's sham debate on 'driver friendliness,' the serious question is: What will persuade Britain's local and national politicians to spend more money on crumbling roads?

In the last two weeks I have driven 3,000 miles to Romania and back, far enough to convince myself that Britain's roads are close to the worst in Europe.

Germany has the best, and even narrow farm tracks are built to standards. Major rehabilitation of motorways appears complete in the west, and the busiest stretches such as the E35 from Cologne to Frankfurt are being duplicated. National roads are robust, immaculate, their signs and junctions consistent.

Dutch motorways and main roads are pristine, some are still being built, all town and village centres have protected pedestrian and cycle ways, speed limits in housing estates are 20km/h and motorists respect them.

Long a centre of excellence for concrete pavements, Austria has covered most of them with asphalt. Visitors are charged for using roads, which helps maintain standards close to Germany.

Hungary allows hope that Britain will not be bottom of the league. Toll motorways allow traffic to speed along smooth empty lanes, but the condition of main roads drops steadily as you drive from west to east.

Romania is devoting European Union money to refurbishing two lane roads along east-west routes. Heavy loads punish the pavements, and long distance drivers dice with donkey and ox-drawn carts, market stalls and children in towns and hamlets. Police with radar guns enforce 50km/h speed limits and delight in stopping foreigners.How long before Britain reverts to that?

The National Road Maintenance Condition sponsored by the Local Government Association, the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions and the Highways Agency, should command respect at Westminster. Last month it reported that the visual state of the roads in England and Wales is at the worst overall level since it started 22 years ago.

The structural condition of the roads is such that 5% of motorways, 9% of trunk roads and 15% of principal roads have no residual life. Transport minister Lord Whitty blames previous cuts and has promised an extra £700M over three years.

The maintenance backlog has been costed at £4.9bn by the ICE. Its 1998 Local Transport Survey covered 105 local authorities and showed the maintenance backlog increasing by 20% for the second year running.

Road maintenance engineers all over the country share in a state of despair. One road maintenance manager admitted to me once that none of his current staff had ever seen a road repaired properly.

ICE, British Road Federation and even Highways Agency warnings about inadequate spending are seen as pleadings from vested interests. Since few roads collapse dramatically, highway engineers are suspected of 'crying wolf.'

Integrated transport and encouraging a switch from private to public transport will cost more money, and road maintenance funds seem the easy target. Somebody somewhere somehow must succeed in reversing the neglect.

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