May 26, 2011 12:02 am

Spending on holes wrecking the roads, says study

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Roads in England are being “driven to disrepair” by a combination of spending cuts, relatively severe winters, higher repair costs and increasing traffic, the Audit Commission has warned.

Councils are responsible for almost a quarter of a million miles of road – 98 per cent of the total – but are facing a 26 per cent drop in government revenue for maintenance and improvement and a 16 per cent cut in capital spending over the next three years.

Damage by utility companies digging up roads for cables and pipes is costing nearly £50m a year while repair costs have risen by 50 per cent in a decade,
increasing faster than overall inflation.

“Roads in disrepair can put the brakes on trade, economic prosperity and even emergency services,” said Michael O’Higgins, who chairs the commission. “But road costs are rising while councils’ belts are tightening”, with £600m set to be cut from last year’s £2.3bn spend.

Councils already face a difficult balancing act filling potholes and undertaking maintenance to prolong the life of roads and tackling more serious reconstruction of those that have got so bad that they fail.

Most do a mix of the two, the commission said in a report. But spending on unplanned maintenance takes up between 14 per cent and 50 per cent of the maintenance budget of the 152 highway authorities.

The situation has not been helped by two relatively severe winters, while road traffic is projected to rise 30 per cent from the current 30m users a day over the next 15 years.

Mr O’Higgins said that already, ahead of the spending cuts, “improvement in A roads seems to have stalled, and the road network overall is starting to deteriorate”.

Few councils collaborate over maintenance. In the Midlands an alliance of councils and the Highways Agency, responsible for motorways and trunk roads, has saved the partners £5.1m and £7.8m respectively in three years.

In the east of England, 10 authorities have shared back-office functions and some purchasing, producing £6m of savings in five years.

Such savings will not plug the spending hole, but they help narrow it at a time when only 40 per cent of councils appear to benchmark prices for their road maintenance and few evaluate contracts regularly, the commission said.

It added that some authorities had extracted more value by building “pain and gain” cost targets into contracts and signing longer-term deals that still benchmark prices. Procuring with others had saved tendering costs, produced quicker deals, gained economies of scale and, in some cases, allowed innovations in maintenance to be adopted faster.

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