The Accelerating Decline in Road Maintenance

07:17 Thursday 15th March 2012
Cambridge Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

JEREMY SALLIS: Let’s talk about potholes. Despite the mild winter, it’s going to take eleven years to clear the backlog of potholes on the UK roads, according to a new report out today. The annual report from the Asphalt Industry Alliance says £90 million was spent on repairing the 1.7 million potholes last year. The report also says the number of complaints received by local authorities from the general public about the condition of roads increased by 10%. Well let’s speak to the Director of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, David Weeks. A very good morning to you David.
DAVID WEEKS: Good morning.
JEREMY SALLIS: We’re catching our tail here. It doesn’t look like we’re ever going to catch up.
DAVID WEEKS: No. And potholes, remember, are not an inevitable result of severe winter weather. They’re a symptom of the fact that the roads haven’t been properly maintained. A well maintained road lasts for twenty years, and doesn’t get potholes. But a poorly maintained road which has surface cracks, isn’t regularly maintained, breaks up in bad weather. And this is the root of the problem. We’re suffering from ten, fifteen years of chronic and historic underfunding of the road network. And now we’re beginning to pay the price, literally.
JEREMY SALLIS: And what’s your view on going round with a little bucket of tarmac and just filling in the holes, which we often see on our roads?
DAVID WEEKS: A complete waste of money. Reactive maintenance is a false economy. It has to be done, and we accept that, but we’d be far better off looking at investing to save. In other words, ripping up that road and properly resurfacing it, rebuilding it. It will last for twenty years, the potholes won’t come back, and you know we’ll have to pick up the tab at some stage, so let’s do it now. Bite the bullet and let’s get our local authority highway engineers to put forward five, ten, fifteen year maintenance plans, and then guarantee them funding. It doesn’t mean extra money. It just means a difference in the way the money comes to them. And it allows them to do this work.
JEREMY SALLIS: What about areas in which we live as well. You go out into the Fens, when we have a drought like we’re experiencing at the moment, the soil can really shift. And that can have a massive effect on the roads. Is enough being done to look at that issue?
DAVID WEEKS: I don’t think that’s such a big problem. And again, a well engineered road, a good solid structure, won’t be affected by drought. It won’t be affected by freeze-thaw in the winter. Roads are pretty resiliant. They’re also reasonably flexible. The concern really is the fact that too many of them have been left and pushed to one side. And local authorities have focused on lots of other services, which are very important, and we understand why, but I think they need to understand that without a robust road network, all those other services literally grind to a halt.
JEREMY SALLIS: And what are road users telling you David?
DAVID WEEKS: Well we don’t talk to road users. But we talk to local authority highway engineers, and 70% of them across England and Wales have responded to our survey. This isn’t just some kind of wet finger in the air survey. It’s very robust numbers. And there is real concern among the highway engineers. They’re telling us that 20% of their roads are in such poor condition that they’ve less than five years life. That is becoming a crisis.
JEREMY SALLIS: And so if we don’t do it now, what’s going to happen?
DAVID WEEKS: Well we’ll continually be doing this chasing our tail, patching and mending, throwing good money after bad, spending money on compensation claims for people who have either injured themselves, or damaged their vehicles. And this downward spiral we’re in will just continue. We’ve really got to get to grips with this. And we’re talking to the Government about how they may help. But they’ve got to make it easier for local authorities to raise funds to support long term plans, and we’ve got to provide better means of protecting highway maintenance funds at a local level. Because the highway engineers are also telling us that they don’t necessarily get all the money that comes in to their authority.
JEREMY SALLIS: David, good to talk to you this morning. Thank you. That’s David Weeks, who’s the Director of the Asphalt Industry Alliance.