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Pothole and Highway Repairs

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Pothole and Highway Repairs.

Potholes drive us potty in the Potteries. There is a legacy of decades of under-investment in our roads by previous administrations of Stoke-on-Trent city council and the current Conservative administration are running up a down escalator to get them fixed. They are running very hard. Levels of investment in our roads have shot up, and the council is investing £5 million a year in the current four-year period, which is absolutely pushing to the limits of the budget available.

The sad fact is that even when we spend pretty much everything we have available for our roads, the city lacks the council tax base, the parking surplus and, crucially, the Government grants that other cities enjoy.

I wish to raise the dangers to pedestrians of poorly maintained pavements and roads and to give the hon. Member an example of a constituent who lives in sheltered housing, who contacted me after tripping on an uneven pavement and ended up with a black eye and a sore hip. I am pleased to say that the pavement was fixed within 24 hours of our raising the issue with Brent council—which has just won the Local Government Chronicle “council of the year” award—but does the hon. Member agree that when councils have had their budgets cut by £16 billion over 10 years there will inevitably be a focus on dealing with emergencies rather than maintenance to prevent them?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that where local authorities have seen funding cuts, sometimes it is right to question whether or not we went too far. Certainly with road, highway and pavement repairs, there are questions that need to be answered, because I have very similar casework coming in from constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. This is one of those problems that can be very easily and quickly fixed, but, sadly, when we have to keep replying to constituents to say that resources are as stretched as they are, sometimes they do not necessarily understand how severe the situation is. So, I completely concur with her.

The reason for that situation is that the current funding formula works against us. The need to address that unfairness is the reason why I applied for this debate. This is a debate in Westminster Hall, and I think that most people would agree that the roads in Westminster, if congested, are in good order. So I looked at what Westminster City Council has available to spend on keeping roads well maintained, and I was staggered to see that in parking surplus alone, the City of Westminster enjoys some £70 million a year—talk about the need for levelling up.

The figure for the city of Stoke-on-Trent is barely 1% of that figure—around £700,000 to £800,000 per year—and in my constituency there is no room to increase parking charges without reducing visitor footfall. Perhaps if we relocated the National Gallery to Burslem or the Royal Opera House to Tunstall, there would be room, but I recognise that for the immediate future this is a quite a big ask. For now, we are much more likely to be competing with comparable cities in the midlands such as our great friend and rival to be the UK city of culture, Coventry. Even there, according to a freedom of information request reported in the Coventry Telegraph, a £700,000 annual parking surplus is secured from the single most lucrative of Coventry’s car parks.

We cannot match that, so I was delighted that the Department for Transport awarded Stoke-on-Trent a one-off £6 million highways challenge fund grant for the current financial year—that is to say that I was delighted by the £6 million grant, but I would be more delighted if it was not a one-off.

As I have said, there is not an option to increase road repair funding further locally from either parking surplus or council tax. We have, I understand, the lowest council tax base of any city other than Hull. We are more than doing our bit by squeezing every penny we can from the city’s limited local budget into roads, but we need more money. Of course, the Government recognise that, and the Minister will be as determined, as I am, to unlock the transforming cities fund money promised to Stoke-on-Trent.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I agree with everything he has said so far and I will probably agree with everything he says from now on as well. I am sure that he agrees with me that the resurfacing of key sections of the Stoke-on-Trent road network, not least Joiners Square and Snow Hill round- about, has been a great benefit across the city, and that we need more of it. Does he agree that the transforming cities fund bid would provide similar cross-city benefits, offering increased connectivity and better public, private and commercial traffic flow on road and rail across the six historic market towns that make up our city?

I am extremely grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend and good neighbour for her intervention, and I feel that in Stoke-on-Trent we always come at least in a duo, and normally in a trio when my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) joins us. I could not agree with her more about the importance of the transforming cities fund to unlocking some of the potential for our city and to improving our highways. I appreciate that the Minister who is here today does not oversee this particular portfolio, but I am sure that she has taken note of my hon. Friend’s comments just now and will pass them on to others in the Department for Transport, which she works in.

Such investment really would transform Stoke-on-Trent as a city, with key interventions to improve traffic flow and to revolutionise the city’s relationship with public transport. There are too many pinch points on our road network and traffic is very heavy, particularly at “slow hour”, which is a much more apposite phrase for the city than “rush hour”—or at least it was until covid-19 suppressed traffic.

I have a number of points to make about covid-19, because it continues to weigh on all our minds, and rightly so. It has caused much uncertainty about the viability of public transport and it is in no way a positive thing. The road workers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic are heroes. They have been delivering ahead of schedule on a number of resurfacing projects, and they will stay out digging roads and filling in potholes in the weeks and months ahead. Like everyone else, they would have preferred to have been on schedule without the covid pandemic than ahead of schedule with it.

However, we have seen what is possible if traffic volumes decrease and investment capital is put in place. The transforming cities funding will help us to realise similar outcomes in much better times and help us to power up Stoke-on-Trent.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although potholes, road quality and pavement quality are primarily safety issues, they also say something about an area’s pride in itself? There are areas in Ipswich, such as Chancery, Gainsborough and Rushmere, that need this extra investment, and when the Government are thinking about such extra funding, they should take into account not only safety, which is obviously important, but also an area’s sense of pride. To build up an area, it helps to invest in such things.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely superb point. At the end of the day, improving the look and feel of an area improves the mindset and attitude of the people living in it. I look at the town of Burslem, which I represent—the mother town of Stoke-on-Trent. It has the highest number of closed high street shops of any town in the United Kingdom. I see the attitude of the local community, which has felt ignored and forgotten for decade after decade. However, knowing what potential that town has and the energy in the community to see it realised, I agree that if we improve our road surfaces and our pavements, it is not just about safety; it is about making a statement to the community that it is no longer going to be left behind.

Heavy traffic has been an exasperating problem for the city for two key reasons pertinent to this debate: first, because it causes damage to roads that were not laid to carry it, and secondly, because maintenance funding from the Department for Transport is not calculated according to traffic incidents but on road length. Research conducted by the Department for Transport in 2018 suggests that A roads under local authority control made up only 10% of road length across the country, but that that 10% carries 31% of the nation’s traffic. Minor roads made up 88% of road length, but the proportion of traffic they carry—34%—was only slightly greater than on the A roads. The remaining 35% of traffic is carried on the 3% of roads that are motorways or trunk A roads. Obviously, large rural areas with long roads and little traffic benefit disproportionately from the formula and heavily unurbanised areas with high-traffic A roads miss out.

Part of my constituency is outside the boundary of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and I certainly would not want to cut the grant received through the transport authority, which is Staffordshire County Council. However, I want to see new considerations introduced to the formula that would top up cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, which lack the mileage of minor roads that even cities such as Manchester have. As I understand it, Manchester receives twice the highway maintenance funding of Stoke-on-Trent, based on the 299 miles of extra minor roads that Manchester has within its boundaries. That means a financing differential of nearly £2 million a year.

The Minister may know that local authorities make an annual report on the condition of principal A roads and also report each year on the average volume and frequency of all its traffic. I therefore suggest that it is not unreasonable to ask that a revised or bolt-on formula should take those reports into account. That is to say, funding calculations should show due regard for road type, with principal A roads attracting a premium in some way related to their reported condition, and with traffic incidents also taken into account. There would need to be safeguarding against false reporting of road conditions and it would be useful to include a match-funding element for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent that put precious resources into roads despite a low council tax/parking surplus base. I would be grateful for the opportunity to discuss that further with the Minister.

If we can get our fair share of road funding for Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we can carry on providing viable and well-connected sites to meet the Government’s housing targets, maximise the returns from the Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone, boost our exports and productivity, support our growing logistics economy, enhance our city as a place to live, visit and work, and keep up the hard graft of turning around the fortunes of a city that deserves every bit of success in its current manufacturing recovery.

Outside my constituency office on Tunstall high street, old tram tracks have been revealed in road resurfacing works. The tracks have not been used for 100 years. They are a reminder of the past and also an allegory of a public transport revival yet to come. Filling our potholes and repairing our highways will not be enough for our future transport needs, but it will certainly be necessary. To conclude on this point, in order to realise both the aims of better public transport and better roads, we need input from the Department for Transport. I hope that we will see support for the transforming cities fund submission and that serious consideration will be given to a fairer formula for road funding.

Bus use has declined by a third in 10 years in the potteries, even before covid-19, and the condition of our roads and their pinch points are key contributors to the lack of reliability that has caused that decline. The transforming cities fund and a fair formula will keep Stoke on the up and help us to be even more ambitious. We can reopen the Stoke to Leek railway line via Milton, reinstate a tram network and deliver tourism gains that will help to preserve our amazing industrial heritage in the must-see, authentic potteries, the world capital of ceramics. They say that from tiny acorns great oaks grow and that if we mind the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves. I say that if we keep getting the potholes filled, the transport network can run smoothly and grow.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir David.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate. I know that he has already engaged my Lords colleague the Roads Minister on potholes and highway repairs in his constituency. He passionately highlighted the pride in his local area that starts from the roads and spreads throughout his constituency. It is a symbol of his care and passion for his area. If we were to take a straw poll of MPs on the importance of addressing potholes and improving local roads, I think there would be a vote of 650-0 in favour, unlike many votes in this place, because everybody believes in it. I also thank the other Members who demonstrated that with their contributions: the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).

We in the Department fully understand that potholes and other road defects are a major headache for everyone and the consequences of a deteriorating local road network are truly significant for all road users. They impact local economic performance, resulting in directly attributable costs to taxpayers, either through the rising costs of deferred work or through a more reactive approach that does not represent good value for money in the long term. We all want our local road network to be improved, and that is why the Department has provided over £7.1 billion in local highways maintenance funding between 2015 and 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North will undoubtedly be aware of Budget 2020’s pothole fund, with over £1.5 million this year to help to fix potholes and resurface roads in Stoke. As he said, the Government have provided Stoke-on-Trent City Council over £5 million through the transport infrastructure investment fund, which includes this funding allocation, for highway maintenance for this financial year.

For our part, we have allocated part of our funding to local authorities based on the level that they themselves have reached on the path to what we consider an adequate asset management plan. That has been driven by the highways maintenance incentive funding element and corresponding self-assessment exercise, in which Stoke-on-Trent has participated since its inception. On bids, I noted my hon. Friend’s mention of the potential to power up Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund. The Department was very glad to receive Stoke-on Trent City Council’s revised transforming cities business case in October. I can confirm that officials are carefully reviewing it and the Department expects to make a decision later this month.

Road maintenance funding comes from several different streams. Locally, that can be from sources of revenue that local authorities raise themselves. My hon. Friend alluded to some of those challenges in his area. It also comes from central Government. The Department for Transport provides capital maintenance expenditure, which is primarily devoted to the structural renewal of highway assets. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provides revenue maintenance expenditure through its revenue support grant, which mainly covers the routine works required to keep the highways serviceable and other reactive measures, such as gully cleaning and gritting and salting the roads in the winter.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are still preparing for our ongoing spending review process, in which we will seek to determine future allocations for these funding streams. In order to prioritise the response to covid and the Government’s focus on supporting jobs, this will be a one-year review and will conclude on 25 November. The final outcome will help to determine what we do next on local highways maintenance and its funding.

That brings me to how Department for Transport funding is allocated, which was the central argument of my hon. Friend’s speech. It is fundamental that we have as fair, consistent and reliable a method as possible through which to allocate funding for highway maintenance to local authorities. Only a few years ago, in 2015, the Department reviewed how we allocate maintenance funding and we engaged with local authorities, including his, among other stakeholders, to seek their views and input on our formula. The funding formula allocates 82.42% to roads in each local highway authority. The remaining 17% or so takes into account bridges with a span of 1.5 metres or more and lighting columns.

The formula does indeed take into account the road type. Principal roads, or A roads, which might generally be expected to have a higher rate of traffic, account for 9% of all road lengths in England, based on 2019 road statistics. The funding formula allocated to A roads is 27.47%, which is approximately three times the amount if allocated on road length alone, and approximately a further 55% of funding goes towards minor roads, or B, C and U roads, which make up 88% of all roads in England.

The formula does not provide weighting based on the condition of the network, as that might create an incentive to selectively maintain the road network in ways other than following asset management principles. Basing funding on traffic flow might create an incentive to concentrate traffic on certain areas of the network, rather than encourage optimum flow. Traffic volume and type is just one part of road deterioration. Weather events such as flooding and freezing temperatures play a large part, along with the quality of road maintenance and repair work being undertaken in the first place.

Manchester City Council does not receive twice the maintenance funding. If it did, My hon. Friend would be right to point out how unfair that is. Manchester has nearly 20 miles more of A roads and nearly 300 miles of minor roads. Its highways maintenance block funding allocation in 2020-21 was just over £3 million, in comparison with Stoke’s £1.9 million. Stoke received approximately 62.5% of what Manchester receives, based on formula allocation.

Clearly, any funding formula that a Department has could be controversial, but our view is that the funding formula at present is the fairest and most equitable and consistent for all local authorities. More importantly than what we believe, the method has had input from, and the prior agreement of, local authorities. However, as we get further clarity on the outcome of the spending review, the Department may decide to reassess whether the current funding approach is still the best option, whether we should continue with aspects such as the incentive element or the challenge fund, or whether we look at other ways to target funding, including formula funding, effectively.

Debates such as this are helpful as they highlight the problems and challenges on the ground. We will be looking at input such as this and the views of local highways authorities as part of the overall process. My noble Friend in the other place, the Roads Minister, will be happy to engage further if that would be helpful.

In short, it is essential that potholes and defects are repaired correctly the first time to make our roads fit for the future. The Government’s national guidance is helping authorities to apply best practice in that crucial work. That is why the Department commissioned “Potholes: a repair guide” by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, which was published in March 2019, following the intense weather of the 2017-18 winter. Such guidance should be used alongside a risk-based approach, as noted in the “Well-managed highways infrastructure” code of practice by the UK Roads Liaison Group.

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

However, we strongly believe that more can and should be done, 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 that needs 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 that have adopted those principles can demonstrate benefits, in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability and value for money. We see no reason why that is not doable for local authorities. Indeed, the evidence is that it is, and it is already starting to bear fruit for them.

I hope that goes some way towards answering my hon. Friend’s concerns. I am more than happy to try to answer any other questions on this subject, and I will certainly take back his queries to my noble colleague the Roads Minister on some of the more technical issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.