Call over road repair funding times

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PA

Funding patterns mean most road maintenance is being carried out in "less-efficient, cold and wet" times, a report from a Government spending watchdog has said.

The current pattern of funding, combined with the need to spend money within the financial year, means that most maintenance work goes on between September and March, said the report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

It went on: "Although this is less disruptive for road users, it is less efficient than carrying out the work at other times of year because materials can be more difficult to handle in cold and wet conditions, and daylight hours are shorter."

The report went on: "As a result of the additional funding for emergency repairs, which is made available at the end of the financial year, almost all highways authorities need extra capacity from the market at the same time, which makes it less likely that they will get value for money."

The NAO report looked into England's roads. It comes at a time when the Government has announced legislation to turn the Highways Agency, responsible for England's motorways and major A roads, into a Government-owned company.

The NAO report said there was a "lack of predictability" over road spending adding that historically, local highway authorities spent more revenue on maintenance, but were now carrying out fewer routine activities such as clearing gullies which are essential to preventing water seeping into roads' sub-structure.

"In addition, road maintenance contractors have cited unpredictable income as a disincentive for them to invest in improving efficiency," said the NAO.

The NAO said that although recent data showed that the surface condition of the strategic road network improved between 2003 and 2013, it may be that deterioration has not yet become visible.

It added that road users' satisfaction with the general upkeep of the network fell by 2% between
2011/12 and 2012/13 to 91%.

NAO head Amyas Morse said today: "Stop/start funding makes long-term planning more difficult for highways authorities. The Department for Transport understands the threat posed to road maintenance from the uncertainty of funding, but establishing a new government company to address the problems will not, in itself, be enough.

"The department should work with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government to address the unpredictability of funding for both the strategic and local road networks."

Commenting on the report, House of Commons Public Accounts chairman Margaret Hodge said: "It is very frustrating that the Department for Transport still has not got a grip on how it funds road maintenance and improvement works so they can be planned sensibly.

"Since 2010, additional funding has been announced 10 separate times, clearly showing that the department has no long-term funding plan to make sure the road network runs properly."

She went on: "This short-termism will undoubtedly lead to increased costs in the long run as the work needed becomes more substantial and road conditions worsen.

"I look forward to discussing this with officials when they appear before us on June 18."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "The reformed Highways Agency will be more transparent, accountable and able to provide stable funding over longer periods to drive down costs and increase efficiency.

"We are determined to help councils tackle potholes, which is why we have increased funding by more than 27% in this parliamentary term compared with the last one."

He went on: "All in all, we are providing councils in England with more than £10 billion from 2010 to 2021 for local highway maintenance, with clear guidance on ensuring it is used efficiently.

"It is right that we provide additional top-up funding, particularly in response to specific events, such as the £183.5 million to help fix roads damaged by winter flooding."

Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said: "The public's dissatisfaction with the state of our roads is at a record high. This damning report shows that this Government's stop-start approach to road funding has delivered worse roads at a higher cost and poorer value for taxpayers."

She went on: "It is always cheaper to plan road maintenance than to conduct expensive emergency repairs when roads are damaged by floods or ice.

"But spending on gritting, drainage, potholes and re-opening roads after accidents was 10% lower in cash terms last year than in 2010 and many councils have simply stopped monitoring the condition of minor roads where people live. This is no way to care for our country's vital infrastructure."

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