It seems extraordinary – shameful even – that, given the expense of modern motoring, the number one gripe among drivers in 2015 is no longer the cost of car insurance or fuel, or the high level of tax they are compelled to pay, but the increasingly sorry state of Britain’s local roads.
For anyone who is aware of the chronic lack of adequate investment in highway maintenance in recent years, however, this should come as little surprise.
The 2015 RAC Report on Motoring found that for 10% of drivers, the condition of local roads was their prime concern, while a further 20% listed this issue as one of their top four concerns.
3.1 The road to ruin
Half of all motorists (50%) say that the condition of roads in their area has deteriorated in the past 12 months. Just one in ten (10%) say it has improved and the remainder report no change.
For the 50% who say roads are worse, the vast majority (99%) attribute this to potholes and general damage to the road surface; litter (24%) and poor maintenance of verges (21%) are also significant concerns.
Road conditions are a particularly big worry in Scotland and the South West of England, where 19% of motorists say this is their top concern. The latter is not surprising given that Devon has one of the highest maintenance backlogs in the country. Londoners, however, are more sanguine: only 30% of motorists in the capital say their roads have deteriorated since 2014. This is half the rate (59%) reported among drivers who live in villages or rural areas.
These concerns are backed up by research carried out by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA). Its Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) report published in March 2015 which covers England and Wales showed that, even though local authority spending on road maintenance had increased in the preceding 12 months, it is not rising quickly enough to deal with the deterioration in the condition of local roads.
The AIA says that the number of potholes has risen 33% since last year and the amount of money that would currently be needed to return English and Welsh local roads to a ‘reasonable condition’ has increased to £12.16bn (England £11.5bn) from £12bn in 2014.
The Government has also recently published its own estimate of the cost of bringing back local roads in England to a state that is fit for purpose. They estimate a cost of up to £8.6bn as a result of applying less demanding criteria than AIA but never-the-less, the sum is large compared to the £6bn allocated by government to maintain local roads over the period to 2021.
Potholes are more than just a nuisance: as well as threatening the safety of road users they can cause serious damage to vehicles and bicycles, and either road users or local authorities have to foot the bills. The AIA says that councils in England have been forced to pay out more than £22m in 2014-15 in compensation to drivers whose cars had been damaged by potholes and uneven road surfaces. This was twice as much as in the previous 12 months; to make matters worse, the figure does not include an extra £18m in administrative costs.
Nor does it take any account of the number of drivers who have themselves had to bear the cost of putting damage right – either because the local authority refused to accept liability, or because they were not aware they could make a claim.
3.2 Roads are a spending priority
Given the level of concern about the condition of local roads, it comes as little surprise that there is widespread support among drivers for government investment in their repair and upkeep. This year’s Report on Motoring has found that three in every ten motorists (30%) say their number one priority for transport spending is the maintenance of local roads, while a further 48% cite this as a top five priority.
Targeted improvements to local roads, such as those designed to improve safety or reduce bottlenecks, are the number two spending priority (12% of drivers) with a further 54% saying this is one of their top five priorities.
Across all types of local authority spending, not just those related to transport, road maintenance is second only to education as motorists’ top priority.
Against a backdrop of a Conservative Government which is trying to reduce the UK’s deficit and aiming to run a budget surplus by the end of the decade (20), it is very clear that finding the money to address these problems will not be easy.
But a significant proportion of motorists appear to take a pragmatic view and would be willing to pay extra tax provided the revenues are used to address the state of Britain’s local roads.
“I think this pragmatism reflects an underlying desire for more hypothecation – ‘I’m willing to pay a bit more provided it’s used for ‘x’ rather than being put into a general pot”. The fact that 60% of motorists want extra funding from the Treasury for road maintenance is hardly surprising given that there is far more extracted from road users in one way or another than is invested in roads.”|
Theo de Pencier, Non-executive board member, Transport Focus; Former Chief Executive Officer, Freight Transport Association
Almost half of drivers (45%) agree with the statement: ‘I would be willing to pay more motoring tax if the additional sums were ringfenced to improve roads, compared with only 28% who disagree with this proposition.
At the same time, 81% of motorists agree that not enough of the taxes paid by road users are sufficiently reinvested into local roads. In his 2015 summer budget, the Chancellor announced that from 2020, receipts from vehicle excise duty would be ring-fenced to create a Roads Fund. The fund, however, will only go towards funding the next and subsequent road investment strategies which address the strategic road network and will not include local roads.
Current estimates (21) suggest that drivers in the UK pay in excess of £40bn a year in taxes related to motoring, such as fuel duty, Insurance Premium Tax, Vehicle Excise Duty and VAT on fuel and other motoring-related expenditure.
“There seems to be a degree of pragmatism in terms of a willingness to pay a bit more tax to get a bit more benefit. Maybe this is because people have a bit more money in their pockets and recognise that government doesn’t have any more money to throw at the problem.”|
David Bizley, Chief Engineer, RAC
3.3 The problem and a solution
The figures highlighted in this chapter have shown that there is a significant and damaging disconnection between what a large proportion of council tax payers want local government to spend their money on and where it is actually going. This is at least in part a result of the inconsistent way in which central government devolves spending decisions to local authorities.
Maintenance of local roads was seen as second only in priority to education when it comes to prioritising local councils’ expenditure. Under the coalition and now with the Conservatives in power, Government policy has been to devolve local spending decisions to local councils wherever possible. But the current constraints mean that certain types of spending must be prioritised by councillors: for example, they are under specific legal obligation to provide minimum standards in education and social services whereas the obligations for local authorities to maintain roads are far less prescriptive.
It is therefore inevitable that expenditure is biased against investment in the likes of road maintenance where prescriptive legal obligations do not exist and councillors therefore do not face legal sanctions.
The RAC believes that if government is to devolve all decisions on local roads to local authorities there needs to be a level playing field. This means that legal obligations need to be equally prescriptive – or non-prescriptive – for all types of expenditure so that local authorities have greater freedom to make spending decisions in accordance with the priorities of their council tax payers. This needs to start as part of the Government’s vision to build up the Northern Powerhouse and create strong city regions, led by powerful, democratically elected mayors. The RAC calls on the Government to ensure that these revitalised city regions have sufficient freedom to allocate expenditure in line with the priorities of their council tax payers so that local roads command the priority that they deserve.
“This survey shows clearly that local road maintenance is one of motorists’ top priorities, yet it doesn’t have the priority with decision-makers that it should because it is relatively ‘unsexy’ compared to big projects. Motorists will not forgive the Government if local roads remain in poor condition while all the cash goes on smart motorways and other big transport projects.”
Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport
Of course such a change in approach would require bold action from central government. But the RAC believes that the current approach is not sustainable in the longer term. Virtually all journeys start and finish on local roads and the majority of goods and services have a dependence on road transport. The state of our local roads will therefore rapidly become a damper on the health of the economy and on economic growth.
Any extra contribution from state coffers is of course welcome. But the Asphalt Industry Alliance says this will “only be enough for local authorities to tread water” and it will do “nothing to tackle the backlog or prevent continuing deterioration”.
A secondary issue is that too much of the debate about the state of local roads and the measures needed to improve matters focuses on potholes and the cost of repairing them. For example, when news of the extra £6bn road maintenance investment was announced, the Department for Transport described the spending commitment as “enough to fix around 18m potholes across the country”.
But this kind of language frames the problem misleadingly: potholes are simply the consequence of not undertaking preventative maintenance and of failing to invest in more hard-wearing road surfaces. These are the areas where spending is most urgently needed. RAC calls on the Government to follow the recommendations of the coalition government’s Pothole Review to ensure that the funds allocated to local roads maintenance are used for preventative maintenance of roads rather than just on short term remedial repairs.
A final issue is that local authorities often have to compete with each other to obtain central government money to spend on roads, sometimes employing the services of expensive consultants to make their case. This seems to be a rather perverse use of scarce taxpayers’ cash.
“I am concerned that this has become a debate about how many potholes we plan to fill and even the Government is measuring local roads funding in terms of the number of potholes that can be filled for the money. What we actually need to do is to change the emphasis to resurface roads to prevent the potholes appearing in the first place.”|
David Bizley, Chief Engineer, RAC