Roads (Maintenance)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1979.

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1.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the subject of the problem of roads maintenance. Those hon. Members who have been in the House for some time will know that this is an area that attracted my attention while the Conservative Party was in Opposition.

As long ago as 1970, the Standing Committee on Highway Maintenance, under Dr. Marshall, expressed doubt on the condition of many of our trunk and local authority roads. Since that time, various cuts in public expenditure, particularly between May 1973 and January 1975, have resulted in a substantial reduction in trunk road maintenance expenditure. This was made worse in July 1975 when cuts of 15 to 20 per cent. were expected from the levels of the public expenditure White Paper of earlier that year. The result was that by January 1976 the planned reduction in road maintenance had dropped to 25 per cent. I would expect that since then there has been some degree of stabilisation.

But the figures speak for themselves. At 1978 constant survey prices, we see that whereas in 1973–74 we were spending £134 million on trunk roads, this had dropped in 1977–78 to £93 million. Although it rose slightly to £104 million in 1978–79 and is £101 million in the current financial year, it is still a long way below the 1973 figure. The amount spent on local roads is not much better. In 1973–74 the figure was £626 million. This dropped to £537 million last year and is £539 million this year. The significance of these figures is that there is a reduction of about 25 per cent. being spent on trunk roads and a reduction of 14 per cent. on local roads. During that period it has been estimated that traffic on local roads alone has risen by 5 per cent.

Some people's response to these figures could be to say "So what?" If public expenditure has to be cut, they say, roads are less important than schools, hospitals and other social services. Should we not expect some inconvenience and some reduction in standards as the price that we have to pay to bring public expenditure under control?

Before attempting to answer that question, I should like to refer to last summer's "Transport Policy and Programmes" as submitted to the previous Government by the meropolitan and other counties detailing the effect of reductions in road maintenance. The Greater London Council said: Only those roads in the most urgent need of resurfacing will be treated. The consequences of deferring resurfacing works are:

  1. (i) a disproportionate increase in the rate of deterioration of the carriageway as the period of deferment lengthens, causing much heavier and uneconomic expenditure when the remedial work is ultimately carried out.
  2. (ii) increases in the need for temporary patching which eventually results in unevenness of the carriageway surface causing environmental problems (such as increased noise and vibration from heavy traffic), adverse effect on vehicles and the safety of both drivers and pedestrians, as well as increasing progressive deterioration of roadways."
South Yorkshire said: An indication of the need is that Yorkshire Traction have to replace springs on their buses 30 per cent. more frequently than any other subsidiary in the National Bus Company. Tyne and Wear said that the number of claims against the county council for injury and damage had increased by 35 per cent. between 1974–75 and 1977–78. The insurance premium for the county was 16 times greater last year than in 1974–75. The council said: Changes in the incidence of claims are a reasonable measure of injuries and damage to pedestrians and motorists produced substantially by deteriorating maintenance standards even if other factors may also be involved. West Yorkshire said: The police made a number of complaints concerning worn yellow and white lines and traffic signs which were dangerous or unreadable, some of which were making traffic orders inoperative. Avon said: There have also been a number of costly structural failures because of inadequate previous maintenance and an increase in conditions which are giving rise to concern about safety. Cornwall said: The policy of central government in recent years has resulted in the county's highway maintenance being held at a level below the minimum necessary to maintain the road fabric and instances of road failure are becoming more and more frequent. Dorset said: On many principal roads the potholes and blocked drainage systems can be directly attributed to the reduction in cyclic maintenance. East Sussex said: At the present level of funding it cannot be guaranteed that the surface of minor distributor and access roads will remain intact and any further reduction could lead to the structural collapse of some of the road. I could continue with this catalogue, but I do not wish to weary the House. Apart from the widespread concern reflected in all those quotations, it must be stressed that the county councils have a legal obligation to keep their highways in a reasonable condition for the traffic using them. The Highways (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1961 states that the highway authorities have a duty to maintain and repair adopted highways so that they are free of danger to all users. I remind the Minister and the Government of this statutory obligation which was imposed by Parliament on the county councils. Therefore, the responsibility of this House should not be avoided or denied.

The situation that I have outlined relates to summer last year. I hope I have proved that we have already reached a situation where successive cuts have meant almost total neglect of many minor roads. In some counties, it has been colculated that on the present cycle of resurfacing they will not be treated for the next 1,000 years, which is rather outside the scope of any Administration.

If that were not bad enough, two other factors have aggravated the situation. On the one hand, there have been cuts in the road building programme itself. This has meant that both national and local roads have had a much greater use by traffic than we might have anticipated if the road building programme had gone ahead as originally forecast. Secondly, there was the hot summer of 1977 followed by two wet winters. This is a situation that no Government could have avoided. But it has meant a heavy toll on roads that were already in a bad state.

This brings me to the situation brought about by the recent very bad winter. There would, in any case, have been extra difficulties. In a severe winter, the frost penetrates deeper and stays longer than in a mild winter. The resulting damage to the roads is that much greater. Because of the situation that was reached last summer and because of the winter that we experienced, there is now a general feeling among county surveyors that our road system has deteriorated substantially over the past 12 months.

The cost of trying to put even last winter's problems right is very high. It has been calculated that the cost of putting the damage right, plus the cost of snow clearance and other work, adds up to £90 million. That, I understand, is the lower end of the estimate. Many would put the figure much higher. A figure as high as £125 million has been mentioned. But even the smaller figure is equivalent to 20 per cent. of national spending on the maintenance of roads in one year.

If this matter is not adequately dealt with, we shall go into next winter at a very great disadvantage, whether that winter is dry or wet, mild or severe. I accept that it is difficult for those who are not technically qualified to appreciate the full scale of what could take place. Some people may say that all that is needed is to fill in a few potholes. However, the damage to a road does not appear instantly. Once damage begins, it is progressive. The unusual climatic conditions of 1966–67 and last winter have resulted in our roads being in need of urgent treatment.

The danger which faces local authorities is that the delay in resurfacing means that in the long run many of the best roads will give and be weakened. The only recourse is to the total remaking of the roads at astronomical costs. I appreciate that the last Administration increased by 2 per cent. the amount made available for maintenance, but no one believes that that is sufficient to cover the bills.

The situation is not uniform. Problems are not so great in some areas. It is worth considering why the West Midlands is not encountering the same problem as many other areas. This is an area with a large population and heavy traffic. It does not have so many miles of road per 1,000 population as some rural areas. It has been able to treat its roads to a high quality of servicing. The West Midlands has reconstructed its roads more regularly than many of the shire counties. The result is that in the last few months, in spite of the bad winter, the damage in the West Midlands has been less than in many other places. It is an example of how good servicing is the best insurance against the effects of harsh winters.

That is the answer to those who ask whether road maintenance is important. We do not refrain from painting our houses, schools and hospitals, because we know that if we neglect them rot will set in and it will cost an enormous amount to put the matter right. The same is true of our roads.

The two motoring organisations share my anxiety. Mr. Hugh Palin, the chairman of the RAC motor cycle committee, described road conditions in the country as appalling. He said: This dangerous situation has been largely caused by the lack of sufficient funds following the Government's immense cuts in road expenditure … By cutting this expenditure the Government gambled and lost. The snow and ice of this winter has now turned large sections of the country's road network into potential death traps. The Automobile Association, which has done a survey of 49 selected stretches of urban, suburban and rural routes, discovered that in 185 miles there were 1,367 defects, ranging from potholes to traffic signs and carriageway markings requiring attention.

The majority—85 per cent.—of those defects were caused by road surface problems or potholes. It is no wonder that the AA said that unless something is done soon road safety will cause concern in many parts of the country.

We have reached a serious situation. There have been reductions in the maintenance programmes for too many years. Present spending in many areas is below the level that will prevent further deterioration.

I urge the Minister to conduct a reappraisal of Government expenditure on transport so that the situation does not deteriorate. Good maintenance is an insurance. We accept that transport must bear its share of cuts in expenditure. A good road system is not only essential for the safety of those who travel on it but is an essential prerequisite for our economic survival.

We cannot succeed as a trading and manufacturing nation unless we have an efficient road network. I urge the Minister to take my words seriously and to bear them in mind when he makes decisions about expenditure.

1.12 p.m.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) for drawing attention to this matter. We are grateful for the work and research that he has done and for the figures that he has put before us. I support him as I am a road user but I have not done any detailed research or formulated figures from my experience. Most hon. Members will agree that the condition of our roads is unacceptable. It is a question of degree. In the past 40 years, when one came back to this country from abroad, one felt a sense of satisfaction because our roads were so much better than those of other countries. One used to feel the same about the railways and about many other things. A marked deterioration in our roads is noticeable.

It is not satisfactory that one should have to keep an eye on the road surface in order to avoid potholes and other hazards. One can no longer take the surface for granted. There are defects in the highway—potholes or areas of subsidence and roughness—which are dangerous to a motor car being driven at a reasonable speed.

When we were threatened a few weeks ago with an Underground strike, I hastily joined the House of Commons bicycle club. I could not think of another way of getting back to my accommodation in Kensington when the House was sitting late. The strike did not happen, but, being of Scottish descent and having paid my subscription, I wanted value for it. I have now had the experience of bicycling in London. Whatever one feels in a motor car one feels much worse on a bicycle. There are many patches which are dangerous to cyclists and which must be extremely dangerous to motor cyclists. One comes to know where one must not go close to the kerb because of the danger of being thrown off. That is something new in Britain.

We must not allow our roads to deteriorate in order to save central Government and local authority expenditure. We must not think that we can recover the ground by restoring at the same cost as that which has been saved. The cost of recovery and repair is much greater than the saving. I urge the Minister to bear in mind that this is an urgent and important matter.

1.19 p.m.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) for introducing this short debate on road maintenance. It is an important issue. I confirm what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) said, that anyone who uses the roads often must appreciate the importance of them. There may be controversy about the building of new roads, but there is no argument about the importance of maintaining existing roads to a satisfactory standard.

The only controversy is about what is a satisfactory standard. It is a matter of degree. There must be a safe and reasonable drive for the motorist. In deciding what safety demands, one must take into account the two-wheeled traffic since motorists can ride out minor deformities.

In the past we had excellent standards of road maintenance compared with other countries. There are those who would argue that there have been times when our standards of road maintenance were unnecessarily high given the need for some economy, and very high levels were achieved and maintained on minor rural roads that were not perhaps justifield. On the other hand, I accept entirely that it is false economy to go too far in the other direction. That creates dangers and, in the long run, greater expenditure if roads are allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and more money is required to get them back into a satisfactory state.

So it is a matter of judgment of where the balance lies between unnecessary expenditure on an undesirable level of excellence and a dangerous and uneconomic level of neglect. In the past such adjudgment has largely been arrived at locally by subjective tests working on an ad hoc basis from problem to problem.

One thing that the Ministry of Transport has tried to do is to determine standards based on a technical evaluation of road conditions. We believe that that would make it much easier to develop objective standards of maintenance and methods that would lead to better spending decisions, a wise choice of priorities and a greater return on capital investment.

The Department has been working with local authorities to monitor conditions of all classes of roads. There is a national road maintenance and condition survey which involves the collection and analysis of data from about 7,000 sites in England. The survey is now in its fourth year and the results so far take us up to last summer.

Although I accept entirely what my hon. Friend the Member for Welling- borough said about deteriorating conditions, the results so far suggest that there is no clear trend towards serious and widespread deterioration in the basic structural condition of the roads. Having said that, may I say that obviously we do not depend totally on surveys. I also accept that one snag with a national survey is the wide variation of local conditions and problems.

Apart from those surveys, we all have very subjective experience of last winter. There is no doubt that last winter was exceptionally severe, with temperatures close to, or below, freezing for most of January, February and March. We may not yet have surveyed the effects of last winter, but there is no doubt that they will have damaged the roads. Prolonged freezing conditions can damage both the running surface and the basic structure of a road.

Water held in voids in road material and the supporting ground expands when it freezes. This expansion weakens the structure and damage occurs when vehicles use the road during the ensuing thaw. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said. A road which is properly constructed and maintained is far less susceptible to frost damage than one that has been neglected.

We also expect to find that the damage caused by last winter will be more severe on local and minor road systems. The motorways and trunk roads are built to such a standard that they are better able to withstand freezing conditions. So it is in local authority areas where the worst effects will be found.

Unfortunately, the severe winter came at the end of the period when the Labour Government had drastically reduced the level of expenditure on road maintenance. The key date was 1975, when the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert) was Minister for Transport. The Government then called for an overall decrease of about 15 to 20 per cent. on road maintenance over a three-year period. That decrease was achieved. The announcement which I studied also proposed that there should be similar or lower reduction in trunk road and motorway maintenance, although that was not achieved.

Expenditure on trunk road and motorway maintenance has slightly increased. This was unavoidable. One cannot allow damage to occur on motorways because, with high speed traffic, dramatic accidents can occur even if relatively minor faults are allowed to develop. There has also been a more intensive use of motorways. They have carried far more traffic than they were originally designed to carry and the overall length of motorways in use has increased over the years. So on the motorway and trunk road side the level of expenditure has remained fairly stable or has slightly increased.

The level of spending on local road maintenance has drastically reduced. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, that there was deterioration in the level of maintenance carried out on these roads. There is now considerable pressure not only from the general public but from a large number of local authorities which anticipate that they will need more money to put their roads into an acceptable condition and to adopt a sensible level of expenditure on road maintenance.

The current estimated level of expenditure on road maintenance for 1979–80, at November 1978 prices, is £80 million on trunk roads and motorways for which the Minister is responsible, and £483 million on local roads. The local road maintenance programme is a large part of the total local transport expenditure. Indeed, it accounts for about 48 per cent. of total local transport expenditure. So it is an important but difficult area in which to make the readjustments that are called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and others.

The transport supplementary grant made to the local authorities is a nonspecific grant. Although in their programmes counties put in bids based on their road maintenance, and the grant is made in a way which reflects the Government decision on the grant being divided up between different areas, local authorities are given a non-specific grant and they can move money about within their overall transport programme to meet particular needs.

For instance, very few counties will have made specific provision for the extreme weather conditions of last winter. However, the flexibility of the present grant system allows them to reallocate resources within their total budget to meet unforeseen conditions such as those of last winter. The counties have reacted well to the emergency by devoting more money to road maintenance.

In considering future grants, local authorities will have to determine their own priorities both in the bid that they put in to the Government for the grant and in any reallocation within the grant to meet specific needs as they arise. Local authorities will have to decide themselves what bids they want to make for road maintenance this autumn and in future years when applying for a transport supplementary grant from the Government.

It is not appropriate for the Government to tell local authorities how to use resources at their disposal or how to adjust their priorities, but it will be obvious that certain difficulties will arise. First, it is not anticipated that transport can be totally exempted from the present financial climate. Certainly we cannot conceivably anticipate that there will be an increase in the overall expenditure on local transport in the near future. As a result, it is for local authorities to determine their priorities when making their bid.

However, if the correct local priority is for an increase in the amount spent on the maintenance of roads, it is inescapable that that will have an effect on other parts of local transport policy. I hasten to add that at this stage we are not negotiating. We do not have the TPPs, and it is not for the Government to determine local priorities. It may well be that local authorities will have to look at the consequences for other areas of transport spending, such as revenue support for local transport and concessionary fares. There is no way in which the Government will have the resources to give grants for overall expenditure that allow for a major increase in local authority road maintenance and somehow disregard the consequent effect on other aspects of transport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has made a cogent case. Local authorities will have to consider whether, in the present circumstances, they want to make a priority of road maintenance to get back to the acceptable standards that have been demanded by my hon. Friends and perhaps face the reality that that may be a more important priority in some areas than keeping down the level of bus fares to a totally artificial level or even undertaking other desirable activities that they would otherwise wish to do.

I suspect that a large part of the motoring, motor cycling and cycling public will endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield have said. I am sure that local authorities will reflect that pressure when they make their bids. The Government do not dispute the importance of this subject. I trust that we shall eventually reach some objective agreement on the right level of maintenance and the right priorities and resources, to ensure that road standards are brought back to a proper level.