The agendas for county council meetings are, arguably, not usually riveting reads.
But item eleven on the list for debate at the next meeting of Northamptonshire County Council’s full cabinet is worthy of a little bit of attention, focussing as it does on the thorny issue of keeping roads maintained.
The council’s discussion paper notes how “successive severe winters and increased rainfall” have “accelerated deterioration of the road network”.
To this end it proposes some pretty radical (for councils that is) ideas:
- Reclassifying some roads to reduce the amount of inspection and maintenance required
- Reducing some rural carriageway widths – to make the roads akin to the single track roads which are prevalent in areas of Devon and Cornwall for example
- De-cluttering signage and street furniture so there is less to maintain
- Making assets redundant. I.e. closing bridges, stopping up roads and footways where they are underused and an alternative exists.
In reality all these ideas have a degree of merit. The strains on the maintenance budgets will only increase as legally enforceable obligations such as social care and environmental services mean councils are forced to divert more money from ‘non-essential areas’ (trying telling that to the voters who routinely put potholes at or near the top of the list of things that their local authorities should be tackling) like transport.
It is easy to understand why road conditions have deteriorated so markedly in recent years and not all of it is down the weather. After the war there were little more than two million cars on Britain’s roads. Today there are a record 28 million. At the same time the length of the road network has barely changed and currently sits at 213,000 miles of minor routes.
The idea of making some roads single track is to try and prevent the ‘nibbling away’ of the tarmac at the verges, caused by a succession of vehicles trying to squeeze past each other on a carriageway which is barely the width of a single car let alone two.
There also has to be some sense in revisiting the prioritisation of roads for maintenance and seeing whether there are those which can be downgraded or abandoned to nature; though on our crowded island it would seem that most roads are vital to somebody at some time and the opportunities for what the council proposes scarce.
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The LGA is talking of a crisis on a roads: literally a crumbling infrastructure which the government is not providing the money to adequately patch let alone replace.
As Councillor Peter Box, chairman of the LGA’s economy and Transport Board, puts it: “Keeping roads safe is one of the most important jobs councils do and over the past two years they have fixed almost four million potholes, one every 16 seconds. They’ve also reduced the cost of filling a pothole by 25% and are constantly looking for ways to make their dwindling funds go further.
“However, for decades Whitehall funding for repairs has not kept pace with demand. Damage caused by severe winters and widespread flooding has compounded this deterioration and councils are now contending with massive cuts to roads maintenance funding and millions of pounds in compensation payouts for pothole damage.”
The trouble is, the situation is set to get worse. Another report from the LGA earlier this year highlighted that the problem is not one of central government funds but also what councils are expected to spend the cash on. By the end of the decade councils’ obligations to provide social care – for the elderly and vulnerable young – and meet environmental commitments will have swollen. As things stand there will be next to no money for anything else. At all.
“Unless reform is introduced immediately the money available by 2020 to fund council services like road maintenance, libraries and leisure centres will have shrunk by 90 per cent in cash terms, a detailed financial projection by the Local Government Association reveals.”
Welcome to the future.
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Did you know that to be defined as a pothole, a dent in the road surface needs to be at least 40mm deep? No? Well you’re not alone. According to the interim report of the DfT’s independent pothole review there is a worrying lack of consistency amongst local authorities as to 1) what constitutes a pothole and 2) how the problem should be addressed. This second issue is made worse by the lack of a reliable appraisal system to help councils determine which course of action is best.
The report says there is a tendency to fix those roads in the worst condition first. This is understandable but not necessarily the best way of halting the ongoing physical decline of our highways.
There is a case for saying that tackling a problem early on – and also carrying out preventative maintenance – is the best way forward as it not only protects the physical and financial health of road users but costs councils (and hence taxpayers) less in the long-term. Yet with an existing backlog of work running to over £10 billion it is hard to see how the cycle of neglect can be adequately broken.
The authors of the report remind councils of their legal responsibility to make roads safe, but at the same time warns that the budgets needed to achieve this will at best be frozen (in reality we know they are to be cut). Even with the endeavours of local authorities to make efficiencies it is unlikely road conditions will improve significantly if there are not the funds to clear the current huge backlog of work.
Many of our local roads are fragile having evolved over many decades, accumulating a variety of surfaces along the way, rather than being constructed using the latest materials and design standards, and thus resilient to increasing amounts of severe weather.
Even if we have a relatively dry and warm winter that does mean things will improve greatly on the roads, only that they might not get significantly worse. At least not for a while.
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