From black holes to pot holes

A black hole in funding for road repair work has led to warnings from councils over an increasingly crumbling network and extreme weather is also an issue
Cars drive in snow near Rotterdam on December 17, 2010
Councils are worried about a gap in funding for road repair work and extreme weather is likely to make things worse. Photograph: Marco de Swart/AFP

Cuts to the highway maintenance funding programme have led to warnings from council leaders of a multimillion-pound black hole in repairing Britain's crumbling road network.

The Local Government Association said councils in England were facing a £165m funding gap to repair roads and highways, which were likely to worsen in times of bad weather, and a recent report, published YouGov, found that badly maintained local roads cost the economy around £4.1bn a year in damage repairs, production delays and wasted staff time.

Last year, the Labour government allocated an additional £100m to councils for highway maintenance, on top of the £836m capital funding settlement.

While the "emergency pothole fund" was welcomed by the sector, which had witnessed the longest period of winter weather in 30 years, December's local transport settlement dealt a blow to councils, which are responsible for 95% of the road networks.

The settlement slashed road maintenance funding by 15% over the course of the spending review period and funding will continue to incrementally fall from £806m in 2011-12 to £707m in 2014-15.

North Lincolnshire council has already contacted the Department for Transport to request £500,000 of additional funding. Bernard Regan, cabinet member for highways at the council, said it was under increasing financial pressure following the coalition's cuts.

Other authorities – including Leicestershire and Northumberland County Councils – have allocated additional funding from reserves and other budgets.

The Association of Directors of Economy, Environment, Planning and Transport (Adept) has warned this problem could still yet worsen.

Steve Kent, chair of Adept's engineering committee, said: "With all the ring-fencing of funding gone and pressure on adult and children's services, highways departments could face further hits as even more money is taken away from them because of pressure on other services."

But local transport minister, Norman Baker, defended the government's record on road maintenance. "We know how important it is that local roads are well maintained," he said.

"That is why, despite the need to make in-year budget reductions, we have protected day-to-day funding for local road maintenance this year. We will invest £3bn in maintenance over the next four years as well as spending £6m to help local authorities make their road maintenance programmes as efficient and effective as possible."

He added: "However, local councils should be managing their road maintenance throughout the year and in view of the last two winters we would expect winter maintenance to be a priority for them."

Highways authorities nationwide are currently assessing the damage caused to local road networks by extreme winter weather, which last year saw the coldest December in a century.

Last week the Scottish government approved a request for a £15m emergency pothole fund north of the border. Holyrood finance secretary, John Swinney, said the fund would help cover the "exceptional cost" of the extra road maintenance required this winter.

Nick Appleyard is a senior reporter on Surveyor magazine

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