Skip to main content

Potholes and Road Maintenance

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve McCabe.)

I would like to bring to the Minister’s attention the blight of potholes and neglected roads, which is a national problem, yet one that often falls down the political agenda, perhaps because it is not seen as an emotive issue. As Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA, recently explained to The Guardian:

“If it’s a choice between a school or a nursing home and the roads, the votes are in people, not lumps of tarmac…But of course the teachers who go to these schools and the nurses who work in these nursing homes all use the roads.”

Mr. Watters has a point, and the problem is widespread. Estimates suggest that there are at least 1.6 million potholes in England and Wales, and that the cost of repairing each of them is about £70. The Asphalt Industry Alliance estimates that the average shortfall in the road structural budget per local authority is £6 million, and that in England only 57 per cent. of the required budget for road maintenance is received. The Local Government Association estimates that there is an £8 billion shortfall in highway maintenance costs, built up across the country for up to 20 years.

Local authorities are responsible for nine out of 10 miles of road—the Highways Agency only looks after motorways and major trunk roads—which is why the lack of funding for local authorities is such an issue. The Asphalt Industry Alliance estimates that, owing to chronic underfunding, it would take up to 13 years to clear the maintenance backlog on England’s roads, at a cost of £58.2 million per local authority. The problem is that the potential cost is adding up. Mr. Watters of the AA also said

“Our roads are such an underrated asset. We’ve got to preserve the asset and put more money into road maintenance. Less money is a false economy. If we let the roads collapse it will cost up to nine times more than if we repair them before they expire.”

Many people have said that this Government failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining, and it appears that they may have failed to fix the roads as well. Potholes affect all road users, from cyclists to bus passengers, and the problem is particularly acute at night on smaller, unlit roads. Drivers are often unaware of the existence of a pothole until the damage has been done, and the damage is significant.

The costs of the problem do not only involve the roads. Potholes are also a major factor in axle and suspension failure, which is estimated to cost British motorists £2.8 billion a year. Last year, an additional £35 million was paid in compensation. Potholes are an extremely costly problem which affects the whole country.

Cyclists and motorcyclists suffer particularly as a result of potholes, as they are more likely to feel the effects of uneven road surfaces, and two wheels mean that their weight is spread more thinly. Potholes can literally be a life or death issue for them. Cycling groups have backed the call for the problem to be addressed. Their reports show that it is increasing: in January 2009, 699 allegedly hazardous potholes were reported to cycling group CTC’s website, During the same period in 2010, 3,508 hazardous potholes were logged.

St. Albans is a beautiful constituency, but it is car and traffic-ridden, and at the best of times it has significant congestion problems. Many of the council’s future traffic management initiatives, intended to combat the congestion in the town, depend on encouraging more people to abandon their cars and to cycle, walk and, indeed, use motorbikes. Cycling is a greener and, potentially, an efficient, healthy way in which to travel, but given our current road conditions, that is often not the case for St Albans cyclists. Without investment in our roads, cyclists will have a raw deal and experience unacceptable hazards. Many of them are children, who may not be able to cope with an unexpected pothole as they are cycling to school or in the area where they live.

Motorcycle News is championing the cause of motorcyclists who are being equally endangered by cavernous potholes. It is asking readers to submit pothole pictures and stories as part of its campaign to address the dangers that potholes pose to bikers. As it has observed in its campaign, bikers are voters too. The Government really ought to take notice of the pothole mania across the country that is affecting so many people in so many age groups.

Yes, you heard it here first: this election really will be fought on the pothole. We normally joke about there being no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber, but in St. Albans they are usually staring down a pothole, so perhaps that is where they are at the moment. Our local paper, the St Albans and Harpenden Review, has been running a campaign called ROAR, which stands for repair our awful roads. As I have said, the issue is not really funny. It is causing a dreadful situation in St. Albans.

I must declare an interest: my husband is an ardent motorcyclist. I know from listening to him that there is great and genuine concern about motorcyclists hitting potholes and the possibility of tragedy, particularly on poorly lit or unlit roads. I commend Motorcycle News on leading the campaign to protect motorcyclists. Two wheels, whether motorised or pedal driven, are suffering far more than four wheels on these treacherous roads.

Why do we have such cavernous holes in our roads? The cold snap in January exacerbated an already dire situation. As a result of two particularly harsh cold snaps in two years, the problem has now reached a tipping point for our roads. Cold weather produces potholes when water penetrates tiny cracks in the road. When the water freezes, it expands, widening the cracks. When it melts, these cracks are increased by vibrations and pressure from traffic flows—and we certainly have traffic flow in St. Albans. The cycle of freezing and thawing water has widened cracks in road surfaces, creating potholes. Once a pothole is created, it quickly degrades, becoming a massive and dangerous cavern if not repaired swiftly.

Geoff French, vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, correctly forecast this problem. He said in January that the thaw would bring little respite, with drivers having to cope with increasing numbers of potholes. He warned that the continuous cycle of freezing and thawing, particularly on roads where long-term maintenance had been neglected, would break up road surfaces. That is what is happening. This is not just about potholes; the degradation of the road surface, which causes a rutting effect, is also particularly bad in some areas, such as mine.

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, told the media:

“Potholes are not just about inconvenience. They damage vehicles and cause accidents. It is wrong to think doing nothing is the easy option. In previous years councils have spent almost as much money dealing with compensation claims as fixing the problem.”

As I have mentioned, in 2008-09 a staggering £35 million in compensation was paid out to road users. Will the Minister pledge to invest in maintenance now, rather than waste money on compensation claims in the future that should be invested in the chronically underfunded road networks? I want to give the Minister quite a while to respond to the issues I am raising.

Apart from the weather, one of the key factors leading to potholes is the use of deep trenching practices by utility companies. That is when trenches are cut into roads—often after they have just been re-tarmacked, bizarrely—to renew or install utilities and other services. Over the last three years, the AIA has counted about 2 million deep trenches dug into our road surfaces, so this is a real issue. Deep trenches have a significant impact on road structure, producing a 30 per cent. reduction in road life and contributing to the number of potholes, as the making good leaves small cracks that are particularly vulnerable to damage in weather such as we have had over the last two winters. When a trench is cut into a road surface and filled in afterwards, the gaps around the edges of the hole are where the problems occur. In areas such as St. Albans, where we have to take so much building and development to meet our housing-targeted needs, we regularly have our roads dug up by the utility companies.

While utility companies do the work and reap the benefits in charges for services, it is local councils that have to maintain the highways, and taxpayers who ultimately pay when repairs develop into potholes and ridged surfaces a few years down the line. Many of us have been beating up the gas and electricity companies for the massive profits they have been making, and it seems to me that when they are installing some of these services, they ought to be thinking of giving a little back to their communities. Industry bodies have argued that, considering the long-term damage done to roads and the resultant potholes, utility companies could help with maintenance. This might foster a culture of more considerate works on roads, and help to maintain good roads. Will the Minister give us his thoughts on this matter, and on whether anything can be done to tackle the problems caused by deep trenching? We all know that at present there is no money to spare in the Government’s coffers, so it should be an imperative that we explore such other means of trying to get adequate funding for our roads, particularly if some of the damage is being caused, or stored up for the future, by the utility companies.

If the utility companies are, through necessary works, compromising the integrity and life of our roads, they should pay into a dedicated road repair fund to contribute to any ongoing maintenance that results from their working. On the principle that the polluter should pay, this approach would at least be reasonable, and it would levy what, in effect, would be a pothole premium. I note that some authorities are thinking of having a pothole tax, but it seems deeply unfair that the poor old motorist and taxpayer who picks up the bill is taxed yet again, if it can be shown that the utilities may well have been responsible for part of the problem.

In Hertfordshire, the problem with potholes is particularly acute. Last financial year, 21,000 pothole work orders were raised in the county and the average cost of a pothole repair was about £80. Hertfordshire’s roads are exceptionally busy, with HGV flows on its A roads being more than twice the national average. That pattern is replicated for all types of vehicle flows, and the picture on our minor roads is the same. The roads in Hertfordshire are subject to twice the average level of wear and tear, so it does not take a mathematician to work out that the number of potholes will be twice as high as the average or even far more than that. The county has some of the most congested roads in the country and a very high level of car ownership. It has the most motorway miles and, thus, the most traffic coming off those roads. As a result, our roads are under intense pressure.

Hertfordshire’s roads, like those in other areas of the country, have suffered significant damage as a result of two exceptional winters in a row. Since the start of 2010, nearly 18,000 potholes have been reported in Hertfordshire, either by Hertfordshire’s inspectors or by members of the public. In one week in February, Hertfordshire Highways received 2,000 pothole repair requests—these have to be about significant potholes, not just blemishes on a road surface. The problem has been even worse this year than in recent times. In January and February 2010, Hertfordshire Highways dealt with 13,000 potholes whereas the figure for the same period in the previous year was 6,600—the 2008 figure was 6,500. We have, thus, had double the amount of potholes to try to repair and, in order to try to catch up, the county council has been working its socks off. It is getting a lot of criticism from political opponents, but it has had 50 teams out filling or patching our worst roads.

Last year’s cold snap in February resulted in repairs costing about £1.1 million over a six-week period, and dealing with the accelerated deterioration of the roads was estimated to cost £16 million. Hertfordshire claimed nearly £6 million of emergency Government funding to cover the period, and we were hopeful that we would receive it given the high level of usage that our roads get, but we received absolutely nothing. Hertfordshire Highways expects that this winter’s cold weather will have caused much more damage than that of February 2009. The damage has not been quantified but it is estimated to be likely to be well over £20 million and perhaps even higher. The Local Government Association has asked the Government to support our local authority, but as yet we have received nothing. That was the case for the previous disaster, so let us hope that this time the Government see fit to give us some funding in recognition of our desperate situation in Hertfordshire.

These are big problems indeed, but they have been made more difficult to tackle as the Government have, unfortunately, seen fit to give Hertfordshire the lowest increase in financial settlement of any county. So we have double the national average road usage and one of the highest numbers of potholes, yet we are getting the lowest increase in financial settlement at a time when we are already chronically underfunded and the county council is having to absorb the extra costs of an ageing population and rising school numbers. Something has got to give and, unfortunately, at this moment it is our roads.

Despite that situation, this year Hertfordshire Highways has, once again, through efficiency savings, put more money into highways—it has managed to find an additional £6.3 million for 2010-11—and still managed to keep the council tax rise to zero, but that cannot continue. Hertfordshire Highways is good at what it does—the Audit Commission has given it a top rating—but it is attempting to make good the under-investment in our roads over the past 20 years; this is not happening just overnight. I know that I am saying that I want the Government to recognise the low funding levels, but this has been a long and intractable problem.

As we have seen, Hertfordshire’s roads are exceptionally busy, yet we receive precious little funding to tackle the resultant problems. People in St. Albans contribute a lot into the Chancellor’s coffers and they feel that St. Albans and Hertfordshire are seen as a cash cow. Taxes are being skimmed away from local people and allocated to other areas, and there is a refusal to give local people the services and infrastructure they need. At this late hour, the Minister surely will accept all these facts and figures. I know that he or his Department has contacted the county council to try to find out more about this problem, and I am grateful to him for that. I hope that in the spirit in which this debate is being held, with the recognition that this is a national problem, the Government will, given that Hertfordshire is so badly affected, give a little back of what we requested in previous years.

This year Hertfordshire received the lowest rise in central Government grant of any county council in the country. We cannot keep up repairs on the roads when we do not have enough money to do that. The council is struggling in a difficult financial climate to fix this year’s problem, yet the requests for additional funding and apparently specifically targeted emergency funding from the Government have been refused and we do not know why.

The formula grant for Hertfordshire county council is £175.965 million for 2010-11. If Hertfordshire received only the average level of grant increase, that would provide an additional £3.7 million to help balance our books or, more importantly, smooth our roads. Will the Minister investigate the matter and take the opportunity to explore the option of a dedicated pothole levy on the utility companies? Will he see whether anything can be done to provide a fairer funding settlement for our area? When I talk about the pothole levy, I do not expect the cost to be passed on to the customer. I do not expect to see higher utility bills for people in St. Albans. Developers, when they come into our area, have to pay section 106 money in recognition of the impact that they have on the local area and I believe that utility companies should do the same. I ask the Minister to think sensibly about this and to see what can be done to provide a fairer funding settlement for our area to allow local people to tackle the problem.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate on the maintenance of our road networks. She has raced through a number of disparate issues and if she feels that I do not respond to any of her points during the course of my speech, I am happy for her to write to me and I shall respond in writing.

Roads are the heart of our transport system. They are the universal service on which everyone, whether pedestrian, cyclist, motorcyclist or other vehicle user, relies. They are the heart of our communities, too, and the local highway authorities are responsible for more than 98 per cent. of the roads in this country. Motorways and trunk roads carry a third of the nation’s traffic and half of its heavy goods traffic, often over great distances. Such journeys essentially bypass the towns and villages along their way, and it is right that a national organisation, the Highways Agency, should run those major arteries. By contrast, local roads have a different function. They are right by where we live and work, where we walk the dog or where we pass the time of day with our neighbours, so it is important that the local authorities that are responsible for them recognise the importance of keeping them in good order.

Local highways maintenance is a major business. In the financial year 2008-09, English local highways authorities spent a little over £5 billion on running and repairing their networks, covering everything from major bridge repairs to paying the electricity bill to keep the street lights on. That money pays, too, for the salt to keep the roads clear and for the repairs to the potholes that the hon. Lady has been talking about this late evening.

Central Government help in that process by providing funding. My Department provides capital support to authorities as part of funding their local transport plans. Over 10 years of local transport plan funding, the Department for Transport has provided about £6.5 billion in capital spending support for English local highways authorities outside London. The real-terms increase in capital allocations to local authorities since the introduction of the local transport plan settlement is 135 per cent. This year, local authorities outside London have received £755 million for capital maintenance works in that way, and there has also been funding for major maintenance schemes and projects under the private finance initiative.

Will the Minister address in particular the underfunding that has been prevalent, unfortunately, in my constituency and in Hertfordshire generally, given the fact that we have some of the heaviest traffic coming through our county? I have the busiest non-motorway road, the A414, in my constituency. We have significant traffic that is not typical, yet we have below-average settlements. I appreciate that the Minister has given funding to all those other areas, but will he address the seemingly low settlements that we get in St. Albans?

The allocation of the funding is based on a formula that takes account of the sort of factors to which the hon. Lady refers. Clearly, when the Department for Communities and Local Government and the DFT allocate funding in the next round from 2011 onwards, one of the things that the various working groups will be looking into is the perceived fairnesses and unfairnesses towards different authorities. The hon. Lady said that hers is a floor authority, so she will be concerned to make sure that it is not penalised in the next round of the spending review.

Central Government also help by supporting the UK Roads Liaison Group, which has produced a range of codes of practice on highways maintenance that are widely respected across the industry as representing good practice. The group has also produced a range of other research and reports, notably on the lessons to be learned from the severe weather of February 2009, which has been much quoted in this House over the past few months.

I mention central Government’s activity in this connection, not to blow our own trumpet but to emphasise that local roads are a local resource and that we are very much in a supporting role. When there are calls for central Government to take a more directive role in local road maintenance—such as with the strategic stockpiling of winter salt—we have consistently said that it is a matter for local authorities. There is no reason why local authorities should not collaborate, when they see the advantage of doing so, to achieve efficiency savings and other benefits. An example of that can be found in the east midlands, where the Midlands Highways Alliance expects to achieve savings of £11 million through authorities working together.

The Chamber is not exactly crowded tonight, and I have asked specifically about the roads in St. Albans. The east midlands is an interesting topic generally, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could address the specific issues to do with my constituency that I have raised, especially given that other hon. Members have chosen not to attend this debate to speak about their areas.

I was giving the east midlands as an example of best practice. If the hon. Lady’s local authority were to follow that example, it could save money that could be used to fix the potholes. Not unreasonably, Liberal Democrats in her area are complaining that her local authority is not making those savings.

The Minister appears to consider that the Liberal Democrats have a fair point, on the basis that my local authority is not rated excellent or doing what it should. That is bizarre, given that the Audit Commission has found that my authority has managed the money superbly. The problem is that it does not have enough money to buy the tarmac it needs. The Minister has alluded to efficiency savings, but that is not a valid comment as our authority makes such savings every year, and year on year. I am sure we would all like to learn best practice, but the Minister will appreciate that we need the money to begin with.

The hon. Lady seems to believe that her authority has nothing to learn from others, and other people can make of that what they will. She has also knocked back a potential saving of £11 million that could be used to improve the potholes in the area that she represents, potholes that she regards as so appalling.

The Government believe that if local authorities are to take proper care of their highway assets, they need to plan. For some years, we have been working with the UKRLG to encourage authorities to develop transport asset management plans. These are not just documents that engineers write and then put on a shelf, as they provide a clear statement of the assets held, their condition and the level of service that the council wants them to deliver. Only in the light of these can the transport asset management plan set out how the authority intends to manage the asset to keep it in a condition that will deliver that level of service.

May I take the Minister’s comments as read? I am sure that my parliamentary opponent from the Labour party will be interested to hear that he puts all the blame for potholes in St. Albans on the failure of my county council to manage the roads. I beg to differ about that: I said we can learn from best practice, but I am sure the Minister is not really saying that we have potholes in the roads because of poor management—or is he?

All local highway authorities should plan for different scenarios in the winter months. I have mentioned the historic amounts that have been invested in local authorities around the country over the past 13 years, but the hon. Lady will be aware that some parties advised us to make immediate cuts in this financial year. We did not take that advice, and have continued to invest record amounts this year as well.

However, I hasten to add that, if we had taken the advice to reduce the deficit even faster—by half over the next four years—the result would be immediate cuts to local authorities around the country, including the one that the hon. Lady represents. We have also been advised to impose a zero increase in council tax. If we had taken that advice, any idea that there might be additional funds for local authorities would have been laughable.

The context for this debate is that the hon. Lady is asking for central Government subsidy to help her local authority with potholes. That does cause one to wonder whether she knows what she is talking about.

I have suggested that the Minister consider imposing a pothole levy on the utilities companies, but he is choosing not to look at that. He is scoring party political points, even though road users, cyclists and pedestrians are taking their lives in their hands on my roads. I really feel that that is beneath him, and I hope that he will try to answer my logical and reasonable questions about the funding formula that affects Hertfordshire and the potholes that affect my residents. Is he prepared to think out of the box, and associate funding with the damage done by the utilities companies?

Far be it from me to defend myself; I was trying to read the speech which dealt with that, but I was intervened on, I think, six times. I will try to return now to the speech and deal with some of the points that the hon. Lady made.

One point that is worth touching on in the context of perceived unfairness in funding is that the Department has additionally provided private finance initiative funding of £3.96 billion, and PFI credits for highways maintenance and street lighting schemes. Cyclists and motorcyclists find those very useful. There are 25 sign projects with a value of £993 million. In addition, there are 10 projects in procurement, six street lighting schemes and four highways maintenance projects with a combined value of £2.35 billion—examples of the investment that this Government give to local authorities, not just Hertfordshire but others around the country.

One of the things that local highways engineers have been telling us a lot over the past few months is that the roads that have been worst affected by the winter weather have been those that were not in optimal condition in the first place. Where a proper treatment has been put down, which is effective in keeping water out of the road’s substructure, the damage is far less.

There is another lesson to learn from asset management planning. Clearly, those who assume that they are perfect will not learn the lessons; those who have the humility to learn the lessons might. That lesson is this: considering the whole life of the asset, and planning over that horizon, delivers much better value for the taxpayer—and much better roads for the road user—than a purely reactive approach of repairing whatever happens to be worst.

Asset management planning will also help local authority engineers to make the case to their authority treasurers for the funding needed to deliver the service that the council wants it to deliver. For the first time, authorities will be able to put a value on their highways assets. That will be an advantage to authorities such as Hertfordshire. The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy plans to publish later this month rules that will set out how to value highways assets in the authority’s accounts, which can in turn feed into the Government’s aim for whole of Government accounting.

When authorities undertake that valuation, they will discover that their highways assets are far and away the most valuable asset that they own—as the hon. Lady acknowledged—generally valued at more than all their other assets put together. That fact alone should help to concentrate councils’ collective minds on what resources they should devote to the public realm. One of the points that the hon. Lady raised, quoting someone else, was that sometimes politicians will choose to spend moneys on schools and hospitals, not roads. But I should make it clear that we do not want accountancy to drive the management of the highways assets; rather, it should be the other way round, with the accounting figures simply falling out as a by-product of good asset management.

The hon. Lady made a point about the utility companies paying a pothole tax for the damage that they might do. She will be aware that potholes can develop for a number of key reasons, including adverse weather, damage to or poor maintenance of roads, higher volumes of traffic and heavier vehicles than anticipated, and poor reinstatement after utility, highway authority or other works in the carriageway. In fact, the Government originally consulted in November 2009 on a revised edition of the code used by the utility companies, which is expected to be launched in April 2010 and focuses on formalising many of the practices already being undertaken. In particular, it looks to strengthen the requirements for edge treatment to ensure a better-performing joint. Utilities pay fees to authorities to inspect their works and ensure adherence to the required specification. Inspections can be made at various stages of the works up to the completion of the guarantee period, which may be two years or three years.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).