The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Rachel Maclean)
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir David.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate. I know that he has already engaged my Lords colleague the Roads Minister on potholes and highway repairs in his constituency. He passionately highlighted the pride in his local area that starts from the roads and spreads throughout his constituency. It is a symbol of his care and passion for his area. If we were to take a straw poll of MPs on the importance of addressing potholes and improving local roads, I think there would be a vote of 650-0 in favour, unlike many votes in this place, because everybody believes in it. I also thank the other Members who demonstrated that with their contributions: the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).
We in the Department fully understand that potholes and other road defects are a major headache for everyone and the consequences of a deteriorating local road network are truly significant for all road users. They impact local economic performance, resulting in directly attributable costs to taxpayers, either through the rising costs of deferred work or through a more reactive approach that does not represent good value for money in the long term. We all want our local road network to be improved, and that is why the Department has provided over £7.1 billion in local highways maintenance funding between 2015 and 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North will undoubtedly be aware of Budget 2020’s pothole fund, with over £1.5 million this year to help to fix potholes and resurface roads in Stoke. As he said, the Government have provided Stoke-on-Trent City Council over £5 million through the transport infrastructure investment fund, which includes this funding allocation, for highway maintenance for this financial year.
For our part, we have allocated part of our funding to local authorities based on the level that they themselves have reached on the path to what we consider an adequate asset management plan. That has been driven by the highways maintenance incentive funding element and corresponding self-assessment exercise, in which Stoke-on-Trent has participated since its inception. On bids, I noted my hon. Friend’s mention of the potential to power up Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund. The Department was very glad to receive Stoke-on Trent City Council’s revised transforming cities business case in October. I can confirm that officials are carefully reviewing it and the Department expects to make a decision later this month.
Road maintenance funding comes from several different streams. Locally, that can be from sources of revenue that local authorities raise themselves. My hon. Friend alluded to some of those challenges in his area. It also comes from central Government. The Department for Transport provides capital maintenance expenditure, which is primarily devoted to the structural renewal of highway assets. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provides revenue maintenance expenditure through its revenue support grant, which mainly covers the routine works required to keep the highways serviceable and other reactive measures, such as gully cleaning and gritting and salting the roads in the winter.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are still preparing for our ongoing spending review process, in which we will seek to determine future allocations for these funding streams. In order to prioritise the response to covid and the Government’s focus on supporting jobs, this will be a one-year review and will conclude on 25 November. The final outcome will help to determine what we do next on local highways maintenance and its funding.
That brings me to how Department for Transport funding is allocated, which was the central argument of my hon. Friend’s speech. It is fundamental that we have as fair, consistent and reliable a method as possible through which to allocate funding for highway maintenance to local authorities. Only a few years ago, in 2015, the Department reviewed how we allocate maintenance funding and we engaged with local authorities, including his, among other stakeholders, to seek their views and input on our formula. The funding formula allocates 82.42% to roads in each local highway authority. The remaining 17% or so takes into account bridges with a span of 1.5 metres or more and lighting columns.
The formula does indeed take into account the road type. Principal roads, or A roads, which might generally be expected to have a higher rate of traffic, account for 9% of all road lengths in England, based on 2019 road statistics. The funding formula allocated to A roads is 27.47%, which is approximately three times the amount if allocated on road length alone, and approximately a further 55% of funding goes towards minor roads, or B, C and U roads, which make up 88% of all roads in England.
The formula does not provide weighting based on the condition of the network, as that might create an incentive to selectively maintain the road network in ways other than following asset management principles. Basing funding on traffic flow might create an incentive to concentrate traffic on certain areas of the network, rather than encourage optimum flow. Traffic volume and type is just one part of road deterioration. Weather events such as flooding and freezing temperatures play a large part, along with the quality of road maintenance and repair work being undertaken in the first place.
Manchester City Council does not receive twice the maintenance funding. If it did, My hon. Friend would be right to point out how unfair that is. Manchester has nearly 20 miles more of A roads and nearly 300 miles of minor roads. Its highways maintenance block funding allocation in 2020-21 was just over £3 million, in comparison with Stoke’s £1.9 million. Stoke received approximately 62.5% of what Manchester receives, based on formula allocation.
Clearly, any funding formula that a Department has could be controversial, but our view is that the funding formula at present is the fairest and most equitable and consistent for all local authorities. More importantly than what we believe, the method has had input from, and the prior agreement of, local authorities. However, as we get further clarity on the outcome of the spending review, the Department may decide to reassess whether the current funding approach is still the best option, whether we should continue with aspects such as the incentive element or the challenge fund, or whether we look at other ways to target funding, including formula funding, effectively.
Debates such as this are helpful as they highlight the problems and challenges on the ground. We will be looking at input such as this and the views of local highways authorities as part of the overall process. My noble Friend in the other place, the Roads Minister, will be happy to engage further if that would be helpful.
In short, it is essential that potholes and defects are repaired correctly the first time to make our roads fit for the future. The Government’s national guidance is helping authorities to apply best practice in that crucial work. That is why the Department commissioned “Potholes: a repair guide” by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, which was published in March 2019, following the intense weather of the 2017-18 winter. Such guidance should be used alongside a risk-based approach, as noted in the “Well-managed highways infrastructure” code of practice by the UK Roads Liaison Group.
There is unfortunately a backlog of repairs, and the recent winter has not made the situation any better. That backlog is a legacy of past underinvestment, which some hon. Members have highlighted, and we are seeking to correct it. The effect hitherto is that roads have been improving, at least until this year’s series of cold snaps. My hon. Friend will know from the road condition statistics that A, B and C roads combined have seen a gradual improvement, and that fewer roads have been considered for maintenance in the past five years.
However, we strongly believe that more can and should be done, and we intend to do more. We therefore champion the need for proper planned preventive maintenance, based on seeing the road not merely as something that needs to be topped up periodically from time to time but as a recognised asset subject to proper capital asset management principles. It is clear that organisations that have adopted those principles can demonstrate benefits, in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability and value for money. We see no reason why that is not doable for local authorities. Indeed, the evidence is that it is, and it is already starting to bear fruit for them.
I hope that goes some way towards answering my hon. Friend’s concerns. I am more than happy to try to answer any other questions on this subject, and I will certainly take back his queries to my noble colleague the Roads Minister on some of the more technical issues.
Question put and agreed to.