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Road Restructuring: Oxfordshire

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

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

In this House, we often spend a great deal of time discussing national and international issues, but we ought not to forget that sometimes it is the seemingly smaller issues that make a real difference to the lives of the residents we represent. For many of my constituents in West Oxfordshire—rural and town dwellers alike—their first journey to work or to school takes place in a car. Even a short uneventful journey can be marred by the phenomenon known as potholes, which are caused by poorly kept roads.

Potholes may seem like a small problem, but they are in fact a large one, and there are several reasons for that. There is of course the pure discomfort and irritation that affects everybody’s quality of life, but things are much more serious than that. On small, poorly lit rural roads, particularly in winter, there is a real danger to the people who are navigating those roads. There is a danger to life and limb, and there is a danger to property. Many constituents have written to me to explain how they have spent many hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds on vehicle repairs having hit a pothole. This is unquestionably one of the most frequently raised issues with me on the doorstep, so I am grateful to the House for giving me the time to bring the matter before the Minister and to ask for his help.

With the House’s permission, I will read out from one or two emails that I have received from constituents as an illustration of the scale of the problem. Peter from Bampton said that the road near him was like

“driving on a ploughed field.”

A couple from Finstock said that they have lived in West Oxfordshire their whole lives and are “ashamed of our roads”. Perhaps Paul from Standlake puts it best:

“The roads in the area are an absolute disgrace, and downright dangerous in many places.”

Indeed, as an illustration, I was pleased this week to welcome to Parliament for a tour a group of students and parents who had entered my West Oxfordshire schools photography competition. One of the parents took me aside and said, “While I’ve got you, could I please take a minute or two of your time to talk to you about potholes?” We cannot possibly overstate the importance of this matter to the residents of West Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire as a whole, and there will be many Members from rural and urban areas alike who will agree.

Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had the opportunity to visit an RAF base along with the hon. Gentleman and experienced the roads in his constituency, so I understand that this is an important issue not only for him, but for everyone in the House. There is huge tourism potential in the hon. Gentleman’s beautiful constituency, so does he agree that we need massive infrastructure investment to ensure that roads are clearly marked, easy to use and in decent condition? Tourism is about visiting big cities and visiting and enjoying rural idylls such as his constituency, but people can do that only if the roads are decent.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that excellent point and for joining me on that trip to RAF Brize Norton, which I like to speak about in the House as often as I can. This matter is important for tourism, absolutely, because it forms part of the offer and image that we project of our local area, but it is equally important for businesses, which are moving goods around and will wear the costs of vehicle repairs, and for private individuals.

The scale of the issue and of people’s concerns should not be underestimated. The issue is not specific to Oxfordshire, but it is more keenly felt because of the many miles of rural roads, which make maintenance a real challenge. The road network in Oxfordshire is 2,994 miles long—15% is A roads, 10% is B roads and 75% are C or unclassified roads, which are the small rural lanes to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred. A high proportion of C or U roads are often not built to the modern standards that we would expect were the roads to be built now. They are essentially old cart tracks through the rural county which have had tarmac added to them over the decades, and rural locations are hard for maintenance teams to reach to make repairs. That is a particular problem when temperatures drop so low during the winter months.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what frustrates people across the country, and certainly in Cheltenham, is that contractors are often getting away with poor-quality repairs? If they just did the job properly in the first place, the repair would have a chance of holding and would not leak at the first sign of frost.

My hon. Friend makes a superb point. I have mentioned the concerns raised when I knock on people’s doors, and people express that frustration that potholes come back a few months after being repaired. They just wish it was done properly so that did not happen. The problem is particularly acute around street works, metalwork and so on. The Government are consulting on moves to try to remove metalwork from the roads and to put it on verges and footpaths, where it is safe to do so, as a way of making sure that the phenomenon my hon. Friend rightly mentions is ameliorated. We have to find a way to ensure that repairs remain sound not for a few weeks or months but for years to come.

Oxfordshire County Council has been given close to £20 million to solve this problem. Why does my hon. Friend think we are seeing no great improvement, despite the advent of dragon patchers? When the council has that money, why does it not try to fix the problem?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and the Government have certainly been giving more money to local authorities, which are responsible for repairing the roads—I am sure the Minister will refer to that. I have provided some details of the scale of the problem, which perhaps has a great deal to do with it. We have a very rural area, and it is very adversely affected by weather.

One point that I have not yet covered, which relates to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), is the impact of development and of very heavy lorries. When a housing estate is built, heavy materials such as breeze blocks, girders, bricks and wood have to be brought in on small, narrow roads. There is a lot of development going on in Oxfordshire, which is a growing and economically busy area. That really adds to the scale of the challenge. The bigger the roads, the bigger the trucks and the greater the damage.

I briefly mentioned the challenge caused by the winter. The snow in December 2017 and further freezes in January and March 2018 have damaged an already fragile network, and it is worth noting that Oxfordshire has a lower proportion of roads assessed as good than the national average, but it also has a lower than average proportion of roads assessed as poor. Although Oxfordshire has a higher than average proportion of roads assessed as fair, fair means five to 15 years of life remaining. That is not a catastrophic state of affairs, but clearly it is an issue that requires a long-term solution.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for mentioning the work of Oxfordshire County Council. Of course we would like the council to do more, but I would also like us to recognise the work it has been doing, particularly in recent weeks and months, while drawing the House’s attention to the requirement for further works.

Oxfordshire County Council has 18 crews working on roads in the county, and I understand that is the largest number of crews it has ever used. In the summer it usually has only six crews, so the council is very much aware of the scale of the problem and is working hard to make changes

As my hon. Friend rightly said, Oxfordshire owns two dragon patching machines and shares a third with the highway authority. The machines, which are somewhat dramatically named, use hot tarmac to melt and mend potholes. Rather than just filling the potholes, which means the filler often comes out again, the dragon patchers melt and rework the surface, which is more efficient and lasts longer. Of course, it is much cheaper, too—costing about £22 per defect, compared with £80 per defect using the normal cut-and-fill method. That will help, but it only really helps in rural areas because the surrounding tarmac is melted in the process. That rural area is assisted by dragon patchers. Small crews are able to travel across the county to fix holes more quickly and cheaply and to handle traffic management at the same time. All these steps mean that the council has fixed more than 28,000 defects, of which about 23,000 were potholes, since January 2018. We are talking about potholes, drains and damaged signs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is so infuriating for residents is seeing one defect repaired but surrounding defects left or areas that we all know are going to crumble in the next frost left unattended? Do we not have to find a more efficient way of fixing holes and the defects around them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I was wondering whether he was going to make that point in his earlier intervention, because this is linked to that. He rightly says that people find it frustrating is when one pothole is done but another a foot away is left because it does not meet the intervention level. We all understand that there has to be an intervention level at which county councils start to undertake work; otherwise, we will be trying to have a bowling green surface and, clearly, it is unreasonable to expect any county council to provide that.

There is a solution, which I will come to shortly. It is why I have entitled this debate “Road Restructuring: Oxfordshire”, as that is what we need to be looking at. Let me give the last of my statistics. In March alone, 5,146 potholes in Oxfordshire were fixed. A lot of work is being done; this is a major task, but a lot is happening as we speak.

I also thank the Minister and the Government for what they have done, as we must not forget that. They have acknowledged the extent of this issue—I have raised it before, and Oxfordshire received an extra £2.9 million in funding from the Department for Transport to repair roads damaged last winter. That included a £1.5 million pothole grant and £1.3 million from the flood resilience fund. I am delighted that, with extraordinary timing—I am grateful to those at the Table Office for having pulled this debate out of the hat when they did—the county council’s cabinet approved just yesterday an extra £10 million for road repairs across Oxfordshire. That will pay for a further 46 miles of surface improvements and 52,000 square metres of patching; this is on top of the £8.5 million already spent on carriageways and footway repairs.

Much as I thank the county council for that, and much as I thank the Government for the money they have given, more needs to be done, and residents of all our constituencies, and certainly those in West Oxfordshire, will be expecting me to push for more. The council has agreed in principle to invest a further £120 million over the next 10 years. That is funded by borrowing, so it will have to manage its finances correctly, although I know and trust that it will be able to do that. I would, however, like to register my concern that that is something the county council is having to look at doing, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has rightly alluded to, what is happening not just in West Oxfordshire, but across the whole UK, is that the roads fundamentally need restructuring.

We are dealing with the fact that tarmac has been added to roads, which over the years have been patched and repaired. What really needs to happen is the removal of that whole surface layer, and kerbs need to be put in, along with sound, watertight, weight-proof surfaces. I accept that that is easier said than done. I understand that to bring the whole of Oxfordshire’s road network up to an acceptable standard would cost about £250 million, with a further £21 million required to keep that going through resurfacing and £5 million a year needed for regular maintenance work, such as gully cleaning.

We can use modern technology, such as the FixMyStreet app, whereby people can take a photograph of the defect and send it to the county council, which will come to carry out the repair, and people can see the log of the complaint. That is brilliant and I encourage all hon. Members to speak to their constituents to encourage them to use it. However, it does mean that councils’ workloads are dramatically increasing, because each time a defect is reported, someone has to go to look at it. Although this is very efficient, it means a lot more work is required.

I know that others want to get in on this debate, but I just wish to say something about solutions. I would like to reassure the Minister that I am not demanding that he give me a £250 million cheque for Oxfordshire this evening, although if he has got one, I will gladly receive it—I can see that he is checking his pockets as I speak. The road network in Oxfordshire is going to undergo a dramatic transformation in the near future. We have the Oxford to Milton Keynes and Cambridge expressway. We are looking at A40 improvements, which are necessary; the housing infrastructure fund bid has gone in; and the major road network fund is involved in respect of work on the A40 and A420 in the Wantage constituency. All of this, if successful, will bring much needed improvements to the road network and ease congestion. The Minister will know how often I raise the issue of the A40, and it would not be right if I did not mention it again today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He has very clearly outlined the important issues on the roads, but does he accept—I say this from the knowledge that I gained of his constituency when we were both involved in the scheme that I mentioned—that the roads were not built to take the current levels of traffic, and they need to be able to do so. May I also mention rural areas and the fact that tractors and vehicles are very large and the roads are not built for them either?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In rural areas, agricultural traffic of tractors and combine harvesters is an added pressure.

The point that I particularly want to make before I conclude is that while much of it is wonderful, we do need extra work on the A40 in particular to ease congestion. That will be effective only if the feeder roads for those major roads are also repaired. That is important.

I raised the issue of potholes with the Minister in May this year. I was very pleased that he agreed with me that we need a more strategic approach to ensure that those C and U roads are not left out. We need to look at that lattice work of small rural roads that lead to the main trunk roads in a strategic way. I am looking forward to hearing from him, perhaps today or in the near future, about his plans on that score.

One thing is absolutely clear: potholes are not just a nuisance, but a real danger to people travelling either at speed on a trunk road or navigating a small rural road at night. They are a huge expense to drivers, and we must ensure that we invest what is required in our road network so that we have modern roads for a modern county.

I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Minister and the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for indulging me tonight. As a former councillor who served on our transport committee, I do understand and appreciate the issues that the hon. Gentleman faces; significant potholes are a huge problem for many motorists, cyclists and, indeed, pedestrians. I have a great deal of sympathy for him and for the issues that he faces.

I want to raise the related and important issue of the need for a third Thames bridge joining Reading and south Oxfordshire, which links into the overall need for greater infrastructure in Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. This is of great importance to my constituents and to many other neighbouring residents in other parts of Berkshire.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the following issues. There are, indeed, a number of bottlenecks across the Thames, and, from speaking to him in the past, I believe that he has experienced lengthy delays at one of them going into Henley, so I hope that he will be sympathetic. Reading has a particular issue: it has a rapidly growing population. It has doubled in size over the past 70 years, added 10,000 extra people in the past 10 years, and the two existing bridges date from the 1920s. I should say, though, that they are positively youthful compared with the neighbouring Sonning Bridge, which straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and dates from the 18th century. As a result, we suffer from major delays, which have a significant impact on both residents and businesses in the area. Indeed, many commuters from south Oxfordshire struggle to get into work in Reading or in neighbouring towns in Woodley and in Maidenhead, which is in the Prime Minister’s constituency, and they are very keen to see a new bridge.

On the possibilities going forward, there is widespread support for action. Indeed, the Prime Minister, as a very well-known and good constituency MP for Maidenhead, has been quoted in local council meetings as being very sympathetic to this issue. Wokingham Borough Council, our neighbouring local authority on the Berkshire side, is supportive. Oxfordshire County Council, at a meeting that I attended last year, agreed in principle that there was a need for a bridge. Indeed, other bridges have been put across the Thames in Oxfordshire—in Wallingford, in central Oxfordshire, for example, and Culham, in a similar area, is due to have a new bridge as well. There is a desire in Oxfordshire for further infrastructure linked with the growth of the central part of the county, linking the growing towns and cities of Oxford, Didcot and Banbury. However, the county council does not have the resource for this bridge in our part of Oxfordshire. I seek to work with it and other partners in government to persuade others who may be more reticent about it to support this project.

I would like to stress in my remaining time that a credible plan has been put forward by Reading and Wokingham councils. A route has been identified. Research has been carried out that shows that this would reduce many of the local pressures in the area, including in Henley and Reading town centres. There is support from a number of local councils, there is cross-party support and there is support from businesses, and we would now like to raise the matter with the Minister.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for indulging me tonight. This is a very worthwhile project, which links to the concerns that colleagues in Oxfordshire have expressed about their infrastructure. It would have huge benefits for local people and businesses. I urge the Minister to investigate it further and to work on it with colleagues from across parties.

It is a delight for me to be able to speak to this very important issue, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate. Those who are watching may not be aware of this, but by Adjournment debate standards, this is a packed House. With all these interventions and speeches, it resembles nothing so much as the circus maximus, by comparison with our regular evening debates.

I can only congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on crowbarring the topic of his bridge into a debate about local roads in Oxfordshire. He has put his point on the record, and that is all good. As to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, he has been, as he gently and delicately alluded to, a vigorous campaigner on such issues, and rightly so. One noticed his background as a lawyer in his skilful marshalling of data and arguments into a forensic case of great strength.

I will come to local roads in due course, but I want to start by touching on an important new development, from the Government’s standpoint, which relates to the situation of local roads. That is the introduction of a major road network, which is designed to embrace key local roads in a much longer-term funding approach. As my hon. Friend will know, the major road network is designed to serve a series of important objectives: to reduce congestion; to support economic growth and economic rebalancing; to support housing delivery; to benefit cyclists and pedestrians, as well as road users; and, of course, to take some of the pressure off the strategic road network.

I am pleased to say that the major road network will be funded by the new national roads fund—I hope to make an announcement on that relatively soon—which will, in turn, be funded by the receipts from vehicle excise duty and used to invest in these vital roads and deliver a better performance for all users.

My hon. Friend has campaigned to ease congestion, which he quite rightly recognised, on the A40 in Oxfordshire. I assure him that the A40 is on the indicative map for the MRN. Whether that reflects the final map remains to be decided, given all the input from our consultation earlier this year. We intend to publish guidance on the MRN and to confirm the network by the end of the year. If the A40 were to be included, I would encourage my hon. Friend to work with local and regional partners—I am sure he will do so—to make the case for MRN funding.

I turn to local highways. I think it is widely understood, as my hon. Friend has said, that the local road network is one of our most valuable national assets and an essential component not merely of people’s economic prosperity, but of their social wellbeing. It is therefore very important to the Government to keep local roads in good condition. After all, they represent 98% of our national highway network. To that end, we place a legal duty on local authorities to maintain the highway under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980.

Good roads are not simply a matter for individuals and families as they go about their lives; they are essential for businesses and important for commercial success. I get plenty of correspondence on this issue. If we were to take a straw poll of Members of Parliament on the importance of addressing potholes and improving local roads, I think we would have a vote of 650 to zero in favour, because everyone believes in it. As colleagues will know, the Government have already taken major steps. We are investing more than £6 billion in funding to local highway authorities in England outside London between 2015 and 2021, and that includes nearly £300 million for a pothole action fund. As my hon. Friend has said, that fund has been of some value in Oxfordshire. The overall pot of funding is not ring-fenced. Its use is entirely at the discretion of highway authorities, based on their local needs and priorities—and rightly so—to enable them to address the issues they face in their own areas. We recommend that authorities publish a statement on their website as to how that funding is allocated, in the spirit of proper transparency and open accountability to local people. For our part, we allocate part of our funding to local authorities based on the level that they have themselves reached on the path to what we consider to be a proper, adequate asset management plan.

There is of course a backlog of repairs, and the recent winter has certainly not made the situation any better. That backlog is a legacy of past underinvestment that we are seeking to correct. Its effect hitherto has been that roads have been improving, at least until this year’s series of cold snaps in the winter. My hon. Friend will know from the road condition statistics that A roads and B and C roads combined have seen a gradual improvement—fewer roads have been considered for maintenance in the past five years.

But of course we believe very strongly that more can be done in this area, and we intend to do more. We therefore champion the need for proper, planned, preventive maintenance based on seeing the road not merely as something, as it were, to be topped up periodically from time to time, but as a recognised asset subject to proper capital asset management principles. It is clear that organisations more widely that have adopted asset management principles can demonstrate benefits in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability, value for money, and improved customer service. We see no reason why this is not doable with local authorities. Indeed, the evidence is that it is already starting to bear fruit for them.

We continue to offer a lot of money based on a funding formula, as my hon. Friend will know. That was reviewed in 2015 and followed consultation with the highways maintenance sector, including local authorities. We agreed, as part of that, that funding would be based on the local highway assets, including road length, the number of bridges with a span of 1.5 metres or more, and streetlights. We think that the formula is, overall, a fair and equitable way of allocating funding. However, it is important to say that we have also decided to allocate £578 million between 2016-17 and 2020-21. That is to be based on local authorities’ own performances as a matter of incentive payments. It therefore provides an incentive for local authorities to treat their roads as assets and manage them properly as a result.

I would like to pick up on a couple of points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is no longer in his seat, alas, asked about utilities. We are very concerned that utilities should make proper reinstatements of the road surface to make it fit for purpose. We have powers that deal with such issues. We are seeking to update those according to what are known in the trade as the “Specification for the Reinstatement of Openings in Highways” rules in order to make sure that disruption to the travelling public is minimised where possible.

We have a variety of other schemes designed to serve that end. For example, lane rental schemes apply to the most congested 5% of the network in local authority areas that choose to adopt them. They have been successfully trialled in London and Kent and we are looking to allow other authorities to set them up in future. We have Street Manager, which is a very important new digital service that may help to transform the planning, management and communication of local works. We are also seeking to encourage local authorities to use permitting schemes, to the extent that they can, to reduce the impact of congestion and better plan and co-ordinate their own works. We are using new technologies. Pothole-spotter trials are being led by the Department in partnership with Thurrock, Yorkshire and Wiltshire councils, with significant private sector input. Those trials, in at least one case, have already won awards for the best use of technology in the highways industry.

We recognise the importance of this issue. We work very closely with the Association of Directors of Planning, Environment and Transport, the RAC Foundation and others. I have met those organisations and others to discuss this issue. As my hon. Friend knows, I want a new settlement for local roads that is long term, transparent and strategic. We recognise their value. We want to bring the same kind of thinking to them that we have seen with the strategic road network and the major road network.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.