This week, the Asphalt Industry Alliance published its Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey which showed that despite billions of pounds thrown at potholes, the carriageway maintenance backlog in England and Wales remained stubbornly at £12bn.
Potholes are the Government's favourite and utterly unsophisticated shorthand for the state of our roads and in some ways, their obsession with filling potholes has backfired. The media was quick to pick up on the story, but the reports were not detailed enough to do the subject justice and the hint was that local authorities had been wasting the money which was first announced in reaction to the spate of flooding and heavy rain which had played a significant part in the backlog rising from £10.5bn in 2013 to £12bn in 2014. The full ALARM report is well worth a read as ever and as AIA Chairman Alan Mackenzie states, it is a case of two steps forward and one step back.
Now, don't get me wrong, money for road maintenance is very welcome to those of us working in local authority highway departments, but what is not welcome is huge sums being dumped on us in one go. Highway maintenance has always been the Cinderella of highways, and highways is often the Cinderella of local authorities in the first place. The poorly staffed maintenance guys work wonders with the little money provided and so large sums to be spent in short periods disrupt our ability to plan in the long term. This comes through in the ALARM report as interestingly, less authorities responded than they did last year which anecdotally at least, is an indicator of staffing reductions made by the Government's austerity cuts. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, contractors don't keep armies of staff in warehouses in case work picks up. We need long-term budgets so all involved can have certainty on levels of staffing and workload.
The Government has provided a map so that Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells can see where their hard-earned taxes are being spent and how money potholes are being filled. Potholes are a symptom of course, but dumping a pile of tarmac into them as an emergency repair is not the answer. Even if a first-time repair is undertaken, it remains a sticking plaster.
The positive news is that the structural condition of the road network is less worse than it was last year (less worse, because it is still a backlog), although Wales is not doing very well. I pick on this as this as a guide to the underlying condition of the network and perhaps a better long-term indicator;
On road user claims, London and Wales seem to be doing well compared to 2015, but England is struggling. It is hard to be sure why this is the case, perhaps some authorities are struggling to keep up with their statutory inspection regimes or don't have enough resources to fight claims.
Certainly, it is costing more in terms of staffing to deal with road user claims and perhaps this hints at the problem - the data is not detailed enough of course and so we only really have anecdote.
Far be it from me to praise the Government and I am not going to do so here! I will acknowledge that my industry has received more funding for maintenance work, but a chunk of it is being used to react to the problem - the local authorities are not wasting this investment, the Government is by trying to show how wonderful it is in getting potholes filled;
England and London are filling more potholes than before and Wales less. Great, so we can fill potholes! Is this an indicator that we are doing better, or just having more money to fill them than we did before?
We have a General Election coming up and so I have no idea what will happen to the funding post-May. The fear is that we shall have more cuts to public services and so we can throw as much money as we want at highway maintenance, we still need a well-trained, staffed and motivated workforce to delivery - I think AIA should add to this survey and ask about numbers, experience and qualifications of staff delivering the work and how much is outsourced. I think it would also be good if data is collected on the state of our footways, cycle tracks and bridges as the ALARM survey only covers carriageways.