Government’s new pothole-repair plan: ‘managed degradation’

Posted on December 19th, 2011 by Ford Prefect


A pothole in Tottenham, London photographed by Alan Stanton

Official report says road-repair spending cuts may lead to ‘further deterioration’ without achieving value for money

A report compiled by the National Audit Office watchdog has referred to the government’s new road maintenance policy as one of “managed degradation”.

The dossier – entitled ‘Reducing costs in the Department for Transport’ – was released on 14th December 2011 and suggests a bumpy future for drivers whose daily journeys are blighted by potholes.

Road safety associations such as GEM Motoring Assist will be keen that the government takes a pro-active rather than a re-active response to road repairs. Potholes are one of the major causes of mechanical failure on UK roads – frequently causing axle and suspension problems; making breakdown cover an essential cost for British drivers.

As part of the coalition government’s efficiency drive, the Department of Transport (DfT) will reduce the local highways maintenance budget by 23 per cent between now and 2014-15.

Spending on national highways maintenance will be reduced by 20 per cent over the next four years.

The report mentions that the DfT spending review which resulted in the cuts outlined plans to move to a new policy of road repair: one the dossier referred to as “an annual cycle of maintenance with managed degradation”.

The National Audit Office report mentions an internal document passed between the DfT and the Highways Agency which said that the plans would be likely to result in “a backlog of maintenance that will require additional spend in future years”.

However, at the time of the spending review, both the Highways Agency and the DfT told the National Audit Office that they believed that the risk associated with making spending cuts was “manageable” and would not lead to future maintenance costs.

The Highways Agency and the Department did though concede that the overall impact of the spending cut plans would result in some drawbacks and additional costs. These would include:

  • Slower repair of damage
  • Uncollected litter
  • Fewer inspections of routes and structures
  • Increases in claims on the Department for vehicle damage

Commenting on the spending cuts, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “We believe that the Department of Transport cannot guarantee that its decisions will achieve value for money. Reductions to road maintenance may not be sustainable without deterioration in asset quality.”

Pothole facts and figures

A report compiled by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) in March 2011 surveyed English local authorities and estimated that it would take 11 years to clear the carriageway maintenance backlog.

The same report also claimed that English roads are re-surfaced on average once every 68 years. The AIA believes that the ideal frequency of resurfacing roads should be between ten to 20 years.

With the AIA putting the price of repairing an English pothole at £53.81, local councils clearly have a big job on their hands when it comes to juggling budgets and resources – there are thought to be ten potholes for every mile of road.

Definitions of potholes

Even the definition of what a pothole is, and how big it should be allowed to grow, before warranting repair has proved problematic. The Highways Agency attracted criticism earlier this year for announcing that a pothole needs to be roughly the size of a soup bowl (wider than six inches and deeper than 1.5 inches) before it will require immediate repair on trunk roads and motorways.

If Britain suffers another severe winter – it has started to snow as I write this article – then many existing potholes will fill with freezing water and fall into further disrepair.

Holes in spending budgets seem certain to make the pothole problem grow even larger.