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Highway maintenance budgets up – but not in real terms

On Tuesday this week [19 March] the Asphalt Industry Alliance published its Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey. Sadly, it’s still living up to its acronym.

At a first glance, it looked like there could be some good news. Highway budgets were up on average in 2023/24 and 43% more potholes had been filled compared to the previous financial year.

However, reading on, reality bites. The number of roads classed as green – in a good state of repair - under the Road Condition Index (RCI) fell in almost every region and class of road. And only 47% of local road miles in England and Wales are classed as being in a ‘good’ structural condition, that is with 15 or more years of life remaining.

This was the 29th ALARM survey, based on responses from 72% of the local authorities in England and Wales, with London reported separately. Four authorities in England and one in London have PFI contracts in place; their information was not included in the survey.

Budgets up?

The overall total highway maintenance budget across England and Wales for 2023/24 was up 3% compared to the previous financial year to £4.46bn. However, to keep pace with inflation, an increase of 7.66% would have been required so this was a fall in real terms.

The estimated one-time cost to bring all the networks up to a decent condition reached an all-time high this year of £16.3bn, at today’s prices, with councils estimating it would take 10 years to complete. The additional budget that authorities in England and Wales would have needed in 2023/24 to maintain their networks to their own targets was £1.22bn or an average £7.2m per authority.

Against that backdrop, the Government’s promised additional £8.3bn Network North money spread over 11 years – clawed back from scrapping the second section of HS2 – looks rather inadequate. Rick Green, chair of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, highlights this in his foreword to the report:

“While the Transport Secretary stated that the additional Network North money was enough ‘to resurface 5,000 miles of local roads’ over the next 11 years, this only equates to just 2.5% of the local road network – or less than 0.25% per year.”

More potholes filled

The jump in the number of potholes filled to 2 million in 2023/24, compared to 1.4 million in 2022/23 was the largest pothole repair count since the ALARM 2016 survey.

A comment from one respondent to the survey sums up the situation: “We are in a state of managed decline, and we all know that throwing money at patching and potholes doesn’t provide the best value for money.”

The cost to fill the 2m potholes was an estimated £143.5 million, up 50% on last year. The report also pointed out the disparity in cost between planned and reactive pothole repair. Planned repairs in England cost an average of £51.20, £51.05 in Wales and £79.95 in London, per pothole. For reactive repairs this rises to £79.93 in England, £81.68 in Wales and £121.52 in London.

One of the problems with reactive repairs is that they often have to be done over and over again. Thermal Road Repairs’ arguments is that quick-fix repairs shouldn’t be quick-fail repairs too; by using processes such as ours, potholes fixed once won’t fail because there isn’t a seam or weak point in the repair.

Despite the significant rise in pothole repairs, compensation claims from drivers also rose. The average number of claims per authority in England and Wales rose by 80% to 421 with 89% of claims relating to potholes. The amount paid out has also risen by 31% to an average of £15.2m per authority.

Long-term view

In its recommendations, the ALARM report called on the Government to stay true to its promise of the £8.3bn additional Network North funding, while sustaining existing funding and extending timeframes to allow better asset management.

Respondents to the survey thought a longer-term funding regime would allow them to develop better maintenance strategies and improve efficiency.  54% thought that five years was the ideal term for funding, 40% thought 10 years would be ideal.

The ALARM report also called on the Government to ensure that increases in existing funding streams kept pace with inflation. However, the inescapable truth is that significantly more funding is needed to halt the decline of our local road network.


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