Local Roads: Funding and Maintenance

Thursday 4th July 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Hansard Text
Transport Committee
Select Committee statement
John Bercow Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the Select Committee statement. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who chairs the Transport Committee, will speak on her subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call the hon. Lady to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning. I call the Chair of the committee, Lilian Greenwood.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the 10th report of the Transport Committee, “Local roads funding and maintenance: filling the gap”, which we published on Monday. The successful preparation of all our reports depends on the hard work of the Committee’s Clerks and staff, the diligence of the Members who make up our Committee—I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) in the Chamber—and the generosity of our witnesses, who give up their time to prepare for and take part in our sessions.

I particularly thank Paula Claytonsmith, Lynne Stinson, Lynne Wait and Anne Shaw for ensuring that we heard expert female voices in a male-dominated sector. I am sorry that the Roads Minister, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), cannot be here today, but he has conveyed his sincere apologies, and I am sure he will pay close attention to Hansard tomorrow.

There is a plague of potholes blighting our local roads and pavements. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that successive Governments and councils across the land have failed to tackle. The consequences of this failure are all around us—we see them every day. I want to talk about the impacts of poor road and pavement conditions, why Government and local authority actions to date have been ineffectual and our report’s recommendations for tackling the problem.

On my journey to work, here in Westminster and out and about in my constituency, I see many examples of cracked and crumbling roads. Just today, a constituent emailed me about Green Lane in Clifton. Last week, Westminster City Council filled a pothole just around the corner from the Department for Transport that I had ridden into on my way home—I confess that it caused me to use some very unparliamentary language.

Our witnesses told us about the serious impacts that potholes have on the lives of pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and other road users. For example, poor pavements can strand older, frail and vulnerable people in their homes. Living Streets has found that nearly a third of adults over 65 felt reluctant to leave the house on foot due to the volume of cracks and uneven surfaces on surrounding streets, and almost two thirds of older people were worried about the state of street surfaces. Nearly half said that well-maintained pavements would make them more likely to go for a walk. Poorly maintained roads create real risks for vulnerable road users. DFT data shows that the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured due to defective road surfaces more than tripled between 2005 and 2017.

Local authorities must compensate motorists for damage to vehicles resulting from poor road conditions, and the cost of doing so has risen dramatically in recent years. Kwik Fit has estimated that the damage caused to vehicles from potholes in 2017 cost £915 million to repair, an increase of more than a third on the repair bill in 2016. Based on its share of Britain’s car insurance market, the AA has estimated that 3,500 claims had been made for pothole damage in 2017. The cost of this compensation ultimately falls on taxpayers, and it diverts money away from funding vital public services.

One of the most frustrating things about poor road conditions—this came through very clearly in our evidence—is the lack of any consistent reporting tool that drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users can use to report problem potholes. Some councils have their own online tools, and there are nationwide sites such as FixMyStreet, but there is a lack of transparency around the whole reporting process, little clarity about what will be done and no guarantee that people will get a reply. Mark Morrell—“Mr Pothole”—for years a doughty campaigner against the pothole scourge, made a powerful case to us to fix this.

Why, year after year, do these problems persist? Why have successive Governments and local councils not done anything about them? In truth, they have tried, but their efforts have been inconsistent, and as a result the outcomes have been sub-optimal. They are constrained by three key things: funding, information and collaboration.

The key issue is funding. For decades, councils have complained that they do not have the funding to undertake a preventive—and, ultimately, cheaper and more effective—approach to maintaining their local roads and pavements. Successive Governments have responded to this by providing short-term, stop-start capital pots, such as the pothole action fund. Any extra funding is of course welcome, but the wrong funding in the wrong place at the wrong time means that councils simply mitigate the most obvious damage. It does not encourage the more effective, proactive maintenance that is the key to the long-term renewal of our local roads, as we heard from council after council.

The second issue is that councils sometimes do not have a full picture of the state of their road networks. If they do not know what they are dealing with, how can they plan and price maintenance properly? This lack of knowledge can be improved by innovating in data collection methods. There has been good work in this area in recent years, and there is a real desire on the part of Government and industry to work together to find solutions.

We heard about a similar willingness to innovate in the third area—good practice and collaboration. There is a real opportunity for initiatives such as the use of recycled plastic, self-repairing technology, graphene and even drones to bring down the cost of road repairs. We heard about the innovation and good practice going on across the country, but it was not always easy for this to be shared beyond individual councils and regions.

Our report makes a series of detailed recommendations to the Government to tackle these problems, and I want to highlight four of them. First and foremost, funding: there is not enough of it, and what there is is not allocated efficiently or effectively. Local government revenue funding has fallen by about 25% since 2010. The allocation within it for local roads is not ring-fenced, and it is often used by councils to plug gaps in other budgets. Capital funding, through the pothole action fund and other pots, is sporadic and time-limited.

To tackle this problem we recommend a front-loaded, long-term funding settlement for local councils in England. The DFT should champion it, and the Treasury should seriously consider it as part of the forthcoming spending review. This would enable local authorities to address the historical road maintenance backlog and plan confidently for the future. The settlement should not only include capital pots managed by the DFT, but roll up into a five-year settlement the revenue support elements of roads funding administered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This critical funding reform must not be an excuse for a budget cut.

Secondly, innovation is essential if the efficiency and effectiveness of local road maintenance is to continue to improve, which it must in the face of limited funding. It is right that the Government stimulate and encourage innovation, but the value for money of any investment is properly repaid only when new technologies, ideas and ways of working are scaled up and made available to all. In the light of this, we have recommended that the DFT work across government to collate all innovation funding for local roads in one place, establish as far as possible common rules for bidding and properly assess the benefits of innovation initiatives.

Thirdly, local authorities will be able to make better use of available funds for road maintenance only if they can target such funding well, and this requires good data. The DFT needs to be clear about whether the data it receives from local authorities on road conditions is consistent and allows valid comparisons to be made. It needs to be clear what it does with such data, how it is analysed and what action is taken on the back of the conclusions it draws. The DFT should also make it easier for the public to report road condition concerns and access local authority road condition data. We recommend that it does this by running an innovation competition to develop a platform the public can use to make online reports about road conditions directly to their council and to access real-time local road condition data.

Fourthly, making the best use of the available funding requires the sharing and adoption of good practice in road maintenance. This is a key role for central Government. The DFT should commit to monitoring and reviewing the current approach and reporting within two years on its effects and impacts. Local councils and industry are developing good practice in highway survey and maintenance. However, from the evidence we have received, it is not always clear that this is being widely shared. Regional highway alliances should be sharing good practice and benchmarking it against one another. The DFT could do more to facilitate this—for example, by providing a virtual good practice toolkit and repository, so that councils across England can find examples of good practice.

In conclusion, local roads are the arteries of prosperous and vibrant villages, towns and cities. They are critical to the movement of goods, as well as helping people to get around. The consequences of a deteriorating local road network are significant. It undermines local economic performance and results in direct costs to taxpayers. The safety of other road users is seriously compromised. This plague of potholes is a major headache for everyone. It is time for the Government to be bold, to take up our recommendations and to give councils the funding and the wider system of support that they need if they are to deliver for our constituents the roads and pavements they deserve.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on her statement and her Committee on its excellent report. She says, very importantly, that best practice should be shared. Her report makes it clear that there are 153 local highways authorities managing the English local road network. Does she agree that it would be a good idea for the Department for Transport to get the best five in the same room in the department with the worst five, knock heads together and drive through some improvement?

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is certainly our intention that the Department identify where there is very good practice and share that widely, so that other local councils can take up that good practice. We hope that it will also hold to account, as will their constituents, the councils that are not currently doing a good job in keeping their roads and pavements in a decent state.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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I echo the thanks to the Committee staff and to witnesses, and I also thank my hon. Friend for her skilful chairing of the Committee. Does she agree with me that the evidence we frequently heard was that the funding streams are complicated, coming from two different Departments—the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as well as the DFT—and that the confusion caused by the bidding culture means resources are not necessarily allocated to the best places, particularly when so much of local government has been hollowed out?

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and, indeed, for his contribution to our Committee, which is enormously valued. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that it is not just the quantum of funding that matters; it is the way in which it is delivered. It is about having long-term certainty about the funding that is available, not wasting resources on bidding for pots of money that come at the wrong time. The bidding is in itself a cost to councils, some of which are better than others at doing it. That is why we have asked for a long-term settlement, and we have asked for a single stream of funding, rather than it coming in dribs and drabs, which simply is not the most effective way to spend taxpayers’ money.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts (Witney) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Lady for her statement and her chairmanship of our Committee. I wish to raise a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Does the hon. Lady agree that much of the evidence we heard and that we hear from our constituents relates to frustration at repeated ineffective short-term repairs? One of the main things that this report seeks to do is set in place a funding system so that councils know how much funding they will have in the medium and long term, and can therefore plan strategically and carry out sustainable repairs to our roads.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a valued member of the Committee. We have heard repeated evidence that councils are rushing around trying to fill the most dangerous potholes because they do not have the certainty of future funding. If they did have that certainty, they could plan ahead for maintenance and re-covering of roads, which is a much more efficient and effective way of doing things than the patch-and-mend approach in which a pothole gets filled, but if that is not done effectively, it returns, particularly when the weather is poor.

Richard Burden Portrait Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the comprehensive way that she laid out the scale of the pothole epidemic currently facing local authorities. What she said is underlined by a survey from the Asphalt Industry Alliance, which noted that the number of potholes filled by local authorities fell from just over 16,000 per local authority in 2012-13, to just over 15,000 last year. Does that not indicate that the scale of the problem is getting worse, not better? I commend the Committee for saying that what is needed is not the odd £420 million here or there, as we heard from the Chancellor in the Budget, but sustainable long-term, multi-year funding at the scale required.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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I thank my hon. Friend and I commend him, as a former shadow Roads Minister, for his interest and knowledge in this area. We heard from industry about a lack of data on the quality of roads, and one of our recommendations is that the Government improve those data. There is a bit of a mixed picture. There has been a slight improvement on some A-roads that are managed by local authorities, but as my hon. Friend recognises, for many unclassified roads, the picture has got worse. Funding is key, but as I said, it is not just about the quantity of funding; it is the way it is delivered. We call on the Government to consult with local authorities in deciding future arrangements.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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I, too, congratulate the Committee Chair on an excellent report. A week last Saturday, I attended a memorial service at Neston High School to mark 25 years since the death of Andrew Fielding who died on the A540 near the school. Ever since then his mother, Pauline Fielding, has campaigned for road safety improvements on that stretch of road, and although it is recognised that the road needs such improvements, we always seem to struggle with funding. If we could get that road, which is a major artery for the area, to be part of the strategic road network, that would open up lots more opportunities for funding. Will the review recommended by the Committee include consideration of whether certain roads should be part of the strategic road network?

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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The condition of our roads is an important part of road safety, and vulnerable pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are put at risk when roads are not properly maintained. Our report focused on the local road network rather than the strategic road network, which is managed by Highways England. I cannot comment on whether the road mentioned by my hon. Friend is rightly allocated, but a large amount of funding has been put into the strategic road network, and we must place the same focus on our local road network, which is, as the Minister said, part of our national infrastructure and hugely important. Our local road network is a national asset, and we must take care of it.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Lady for the report, which included input from my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), and the Government have set aside additional money to address potholes in Northern Ireland. Potholes are a daily nuisance in all our constituencies, not just because of their inconvenience, but because they pose a danger to cyclists, motorcyclists and those who drive cars. The Government refer to a 5 million pothole strategy by 2020-21. Does the Committee consider that strategy to be fully funded and a priority, because it is important to have a proactive response rather than a reactive one?

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we want to move from a reactive to a proactive approach to mending our roads, so that local authorities can plan ahead. The pothole action fund has undoubtedly allowed local authorities to fill some roads and undertake work, but that often gets agreed within the year and is time-limited, so it must be implemented by the end of the financial year. That is not the most efficient and effective way to deal with the funding and maintenance of our local roads, and that issue lies at the heart of the Committee’s report.

Bill Presented

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No.57)

Secretary Karen Bradley, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary David Gauke, Secretary David Mundell, Secretary Alun Cairns, John Penrose and Kevin Foster, presented a Bill to extend the period for forming and Executive under section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 and to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to report on progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Monday 8 July, and to be printed (Bill 417), with explanatory notes (Bill 417-EN).