It is a fact that we fail to spend enough on maintaining our roads. The 2008 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance shows a £1bn shortfall in funding across the country and an estimated repairs backlog that will take 11 years to complete (News, last week).
The same survey shows that, on average, 1M pot holes are dug up across the country each year and the number of road openings by utility companies has risen from just 2M last year to nearly 2.5M across England and Wales, averaging 16,500 trenches on every English authority's roads. As a country, we have to move away from "make do and mend" – the sticking plaster approach to maintaining our roads.
How have we got here? Growing pressure on local authority budgets could lead to further reductions in maintenance spend and the temptation must be to go for cheaper solutions. But as so often in life, you get what you pay for – and the lifespan of our roads is consequently not as long as it should be. This, coupled with increased traffic levels and wetter winters and hotter summers could have a disastrous impact on the long-term condition of our roads and threaten road users' safety.
Despite the best efforts of local authorities and the private sector to drive best value from inadequate funding through innovation and collaborative working, deterioration of the UK road network continues apace. Many local authorities are simply forced to paper over the cracks and treat the worst roads first. But is this the most effective use of the money available?
Once a road surface fails it becomes more expensive to repair. We should be treating our roads before they fail. The maxim of "prevention is better than cure" holds true. Initially more expensive but longer-lasting pavement solutions are the way to go. Short-term public sector procurement must be reduced in favour of long-term gain. I know this is easier said than done.
Two changes to our road maintenance approach can help make a big difference.
First, the technical development of our pavement surfaces has come on considerably in recent years. A more durable surface will pay medium and long-term dividends by reducing the frequency of future road repairs.
Second, we need to look at new ways of working to help save cost. Nottinghamshire County Council's response has been to develop the Nottinghamshire Highways Partnership (NHP), a collaborative partnership that aims to maximise value and minimise waste for road design and maintenance. Tarmac has become a well-established NHP partner, working with the council to deliver real efficiency improvements, promote best value, and spread best practice – while bringing together private industry commercial expertise and experience. We learn from each other.
A sticking plaster is effective if treating a minor cut; it is cheap and it works well. Unfortunately the prognosis for the UK road network is much worse than a minor cut – more radical solutions are required.
- Paul Fleetham is a director of Tarmac National Contracting