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Public Accounts Committee criticises UK's "piecemeal" approach to funding road network maintenance

Out-Law News | 30 Sep 2014 | 10:59 am | 2 min. read

The UK government's "unpredictable and fluctuating" approach to funding improvements to roads has made it difficult for highways authorities to carry out ongoing maintenance in a cost effective way, according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In a critical report, the PAC found that the Department for Transport (DfT) had cut the budget for road maintenance by £1.2 billion since the government's 2010 spending review. However, it had provided £1.1bn in "reactive" additional funding for reasons including flooding and winter damage over the same period, it said.

"The department's piecemeal and stop-go approach to funding for road maintenance in recent decades has made it difficult for highways authorities to maintain roads cost-effectively," said committee chair Margaret Hodge. "There has been too much reactive work in response to flooding and other events and not enough focus on preventative work that is less expensive in the long term."

"Whilst we understand the unpredictable nature of winter weather, too much road maintenance is inefficient because it is reactive and unplanned. Concentrating activity in the winter months is inefficient and costly ... Routine maintenance is essential to deal with increasingly frequent severe weather and to prevent long-term damage to infrastructure, but a fall in the proportion of revenue funding to capital funding risks a reduction in this type of maintenance," she said.

The report said that the DfT was trying to make funding more stable and predictable, which should make it easier for highways authorities to plan maintenance work more effectively. The Highways Agency is due to be converted into a publicly-owned corporation from next April, with its own five-year 'roads investment strategy' budget.

England's strategic and local roads are worth a combined £344bn and are made up of roads and related infrastructure such as bridges, embankments and drainage systems. The 4,400 mile strategic road network, which is made up of almost all of England's motorways and its most important 'A' roads, is overseen by the Highways Agency, which is an executive agency of the DfT. The remaining 183,000 miles of local roads are maintained by 152 local highways authorities.

According to the PAC, public satisfaction with the state of England's roads is currently at its lowest level since the DfT began monitoring it in 2008, with roads in London and the south east coming in for particular criticism. It found that the DfT spent £31.6 million on compensating drivers for damage caused by poor road conditions in financial year 2013/14, while the cost of filling a pothole was only £52 or £70 in London.

The PAC highlighted "a lack of information and understanding" amongst local highways authorities about what road infrastructure assets they had, what condition they were in and how different types of infrastructure deteriorate over time. It recommended that the DfT help local highway authorities to develop appropriate data and understanding of that data, and ensure that central government funding began to promote and support the more even spread of maintenance spending throughout the year.

"The comments from the PAC follow an honourable tradition of criticisms of public investment in transport and echo criticisms levelled at other, more heavily-regulated parts of the infrastructure sector," said infrastructure expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

"Certainty in pipeline helps create business efficiency which in turn can lead to cost savings. This isn't a revolutionary statement - it has to be hoped that the plans to transform the status of the Highways Agency help address the concerns being raised by the Public Accounts Committee rather than - as feared by the Transport Committee - add to problems in respect of investment in the strategic road network," he said.