Earlier this summer the prospects for local authority maintained roads were looking pretty grim, but at the Asphalt Industry Alliance optimism is growing. Mark Hansford finds out why.
Two years ago, the government promised to attack the UK's enormous road maintenance backlog as part of a £31bn programme. Yet despite the pledge, set out in the 10 year transport plan, the condition of local roads is still getting worse.
Surveys earlier this summer by both the ICE and the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) painted a pretty grim picture. The ICE put the cost of repairing local roads at £7.4bn, up almost £1bn over the last 12 months.
AIA figures tallied, putting the annual shortfall at £1.2bn.
On average, the ICE survey revealed that over 10% of highways maintenance budgets are diverted by local authorities to other areas of expenditure, a figure borne out by another survey, this time carried out by the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA). In CECA's survey of more than 100 contractors, 37% said that their local roads workload was down on one year ago. CECA fears that money is not reaching the industry because councils are raiding their £1.95bn routine maintenance budgets to fund other services.
This is a problem that local authority engineers have always faced - funds for road maintenance come from the same pot as funds for healthcare, education and social services, all of which fall under far closer public scrutiny than roads. The 10 year plan offered reassurance on capital funding for roads, ringfencing £31bn over 10 years.
But from this April all local authority capital expenditure has been put back into a single pot, raising fears of a return to under-investment. Anxieties appeared to be borne out by the ICE, AIA and CECA surveys.
Now, however, AIA chairman Jim Crick has seen a glimmer of hope in the form of transport minister John Spellar. Prompted by the AIA's annual local authority road maintenance (ALARM) survey, Spellar summoned Crick to a meeting earlier this month.
'The minister is on our side, and wants to make sure that we are not underspending, ' reports Crick.
'While there is nothing in the Alarm survey that we would retract - after all it represents the view of half the local authorities in Britain and holds a lot of water - we're now in September and there has been a bit of a change in attitude.
'Underspending has been a factor for many years, but what we are now seeing is the government willing to push local authorities to ensure that money is spent on road maintenance.
OK, the money was promised in the plan two years ago, and six months ago we hadn't seen any, ' says Crick. 'But now it is beginning to appear, and we are seeing a lot of local authorities with a bit more money. We can't carry on complaining and whinging if we actually have a government that is on our side.
'What we need to do now is to work with the minister to tackle the phasing. We as an industry could surely do a much better job working through the summer and not waiting until February and March, ' he says.
'A constant flow of work would have to deliver better value for money.'
The County Surveyors' Society (CSS) agrees that capital funding through local transport plans is arriving, but that maintenance funding remains an issue. 'This year all but three authorities were awarded their full LTP funding, ' said CSS president David Harvey. 'The problem is that increases in capital are not being matched by increases in revenue allocations.'
Authorities responding to the ICE survey were almost unanimous in disliking the complexity of the current funding system, including the imbalance between revenue and capital funding and the proliferation of small funding pots accessible only through competition with other authorities. The bureaucracy, wasted effort and high start up costs of PFI were also criticised. Authorities instead favoured a long-term, ringfenced funding approach, a view echoed by the CSS. 'What we need is long term stability in capital and revenue, giving us the confidence to invest in resources and skills, and to get partnerships which deliver long term value for money, ' says Harvey. 'Otherwise the target will take even longer.'
The CSS already has grave doubts that there is the money in the system to make improvements in the time expected by government, and fears that the public may grow restless. 'We are ultimately accountable to the public and at the moment reality may drift away from what they might expect, ' says Harvey. 'We support the government view that there should be meaningful performance measures, but our argument has always been that LTP targets should be tied to funding and revised to match the funding received.
'The public has an increasing expectation, but it will be some time before they see improvements. All we know is that we're not winning the battle.'
ALARM: AIA Local Authority Road Maintenance survey The Alarm survey is based on information supplied by 47% of local authorities with highway maintenance responsibilities in England, Scotland and Wales.
The key findings were:
The total local authority budget for all types of road maintenance is in the order of £1.7bn. Around 40% of this is spent on structural maintenance to carriageways, and up to a third goes on reactive maintenance as opposed to planned maintenance.
An authority would on average need £11.1M to maintain roads adequately in its area. They receive just over a third of this amount, equating to a shortfall of £1.2bn per annum in the UK overall.
At current maintenance levels, local authority roads can expect to be resurfaced once every 84 years. It is recommended that, for safety and cost-efficiency reasons, an asphalt road should be resurfaced every 10-20 years.
On average the number of visual defects on local authority roads has increased 89% over the last 10 years.
Last year £121M was paid out by local authorities in insurance claims for damage to vehicles or accidents caused by the structural condition of roads. 80% of authorities believe the underfunding of road maintenance causes a threat or major threat to road user safety.
ICE Local Transport & Public Realm survey
The ICE annual survey was based on 40 responses from local authorities accounting for 30% of the population of Great Britain. The key findings were:
78% of authorities said the backlog of maintenance work had increased over the last 12 months. The total cost of eliminating the maintenance backlog across the UK was estimated at £7.4bn
On average just 87% of a local authority's maintenance budget is actually spent on highway maintenance
68% of authorities were satisfied with the government's response to their Local Transport Plan (LTP) submissions. 65% described the system as fair. But 58% expected difficulties implementing the LTP with resources available. 70% wanted the plan to be implemented on five year cycle, reviewed annually l71% of authorities find the funding system time-wasting or awkward. Just 3% find it simple and effective l72% of authorities have problems with revenue funding, with 25% describing these problems as severe
Single project funds - where local authorities are invited to compete for funds for specific activities - are unpopular with 60% of authorities lOnly 25% of authorities procured projects using the private finance initiative on the basis of it being the most economic solution lAuthorities estimated that it would cost £26bn to improve public spaces and local transport systems to an adequate standard.
Raising them to a high quality would cost £70bn.
Download the ICE Local Transport & Public Realm Survey 2002 at www. ice. org. uk/rtfpdf/localtran sport2002. pdf. Download the AIA Alarm Survey at www. asphaltindustryalliance. com