ALARM Survey: Road repair backlog soars by more than £2bn

The cost of the 'pothole repair backlog’ across England and Wales has jumped by nearly 25% in the last 12 months from £10.24bn to £12.64bn, in a major warning sign of the devastating impact of inflation on the highways sector.

Close to a fifth of the network (18%) or 36,918 miles is now defined as being ‘structurally poor’, with less than five years’ life remaining – an increase of more than 2,000 miles on last year’s figures.  And more than 10% of the network is ‘likely to require maintenance in the next 12 months’.

Despite the average highway maintenance budget increasing by 4% to £24.7m per authority over the last year, the flagship annual local roads maintenance survey - the ALARM survey - highlights that these gains were washed away, with inflation, the remains of the impact from COVID and extreme weather events all playing a part.

A total repair bill for local roads is likely to be much higher as the survey, conducted by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, only covers the road itself and not associated assets like bridges and street lighting.

The £12.64bn figure represents the 'amount needed as a one-off to bring the network up to a condition that would allow it to be managed cost-effectively going forward as part of a proactive asset management approach'.

It amounts to the equivalent of £75.7m for every local authority in England and Wales.

The average financial shortfall in the 2021/22 carriageway budget leapt by nearly 50% to £6.4m per authority, the highest in at least a decade, with the total shortfall exceeding £1bn.

The ALARM survey also revealed that the total amount paid out by councils in compensation claims to road users increased to £8.9m, despite traffic levels remaining below pre-pandemic levels.

A further £11m was spent on staff costs to deal with the claims, bringing the overall total spent addressing claims to £19.9m across England, London and Wales. This is the equivalent of £96.70 paid out each year per mile of road.

A DfT spokesperson said: ‘The Government is providing more than £5bn of investment over 2020-2025 for highways maintenance to local highways authorities across England.

‘This is enough to fill millions of potholes a year, repair dozens of bridges, and resurface roads up and down the country.’

However, with the Government recently announcing a highways funding freeze for the next three years and inflation in this oil-dependent industry running at nearly 20% according to some estimates, the forecast for the near future looks bleak.

Rick Green, chair of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, said: 'Against a backdrop of increased costs caused by rising inflation, the message from this year’s ALARM research is clear: those responsible for maintaining our local roads are fast approaching the point where they are no longer waving but drowning.

'What’s clear is that the current means of allocating funding – with capital budgets for enhancements to the network and revenue budgets for road maintenance – compounds a short-term approach.

'Revenue-poor engineers told us that they often have to opt for reactive maintenance treatments that can be completed within certain timescales, regardless of the whole-life implications for carbon emissions and their authorities’ net zero pledges, which the majority have set for 2030 – just eight years away.'

The AIA suggests an extra £2bn a year is needed over the next decade. As it stands the backlog would take almost a decade to repair, though the current average frequency for all classes of road resurfacing is once every 70 years, with a road being resurfaced today not likely to be so again until 2092.

Despite the average rise in highway maintenance budgets, the majority of local authority highway teams (56%) reported a cut or freeze in their budgets, even before inflation is taken into account.

And the percentage of highway maintenance budget allocated to the carriageway itself also dropped slightly to 51%, reflecting 'growing pressures to maintain other parts of the highway asset, such as structures, signage and drainage'.

The dire situation is most evident on the mostly rural unclassified roads - 15% are now in poor condition compared to 4% of the principal network and 5% of the non-principal.

Anti-pothole campaigner Mark Morrell, aka Mr Pothole, told Highways: ‘We should be demanding more money. I am fed up with the Government playing games.’

He called for similar funding levels to the AIA or ‘£3bn a year in total spend’.

‘They need to invest an extra £2bn a year resurfacing programme for local authorities. I don’t accept there is no money because they have got a huge windfall from tax on rising fuel costs,’ he argued.

He also called for a £20m training fund every year to improve the quality of work on the roads and a £50m for capital grants to help councils make smart investments in technology and machinery.

‘Councils are between a rock and a hard place. The only thing they could do is look at better machinery and technology because you can definitely save money and get on top of things. They need to be more proactive. Councils are very slow to pick up on things.’

Dr Nick Thom of the University of Nottingham, who is an expert on potholes and road surfacing, also suggested councils and government need to work smarter if extra cash is not forthcoming.

‘Self-evidently the problem is a lack of resource, and it is not a problem that is easy to solve in a world where resources are becoming increasingly scarce. The only solution therefore is to ‘design the hell’ out of it. We simply have to make our surfaces last longer. And that means we have to understand exactly why they fail,’ he stated.

‘A government-funded joint research project between Nottingham and Aston universities, supported by several industry bodies including National Highways, Transport for London and Nottinghamshire County Council, is tasked with doing just that, looking at the effect of properties such as porosity and permeability, and working out practical solutions to do it better. The impossible will always remain out of reach, but it is our belief that the art of the possible can be extended significantly.’

The ALARM survey found only 66% of respondents were ‘selecting surfacing materials with longer life’, and were probably opting for materials with lower upfront costs instead.

It also found that despite 85% of respondents reporting their authority has made a net zero pledge, only 8% had a ‘quantified target to reduce the carbon footprint resulting from the procurement of road surfacing materials’.

In other sustainability areas:

  • 67% using low carbon warm mix asphalt
  • 33% specify reclaimed asphalt
  • 39% specify other recycled content
  • 40% choose materials with lowest initial carbon footprint
  • 66% promoting more efficient working to reduce emissions

There was a slight improvement (2%) in the percentage of the network classified as being in green or good condition.

‘Feedback suggests that highway engineers focused on managing those roads classed as amber (where some deterioration is apparent) on their network, with many taking steps to return borderline amber roads to green, if only temporarily,' the ALARM report states.

In total, 73% of authorities responded to the ALARM survey this year. This data was extrapolated to represent the 113 local authorities in England without a PFI, 22 in Wales and 32 in London.

Local highway authorities in England and Wales, including London, are responsible for over 205,100 miles of roads representing 97.3% of the total road network and with an asset value over £400bn.

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