Highways Maintenance and Integrated Transport Funding

– in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 18 December 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 8:14, 18 December 2023

The good news is that, to everyone’s relief—including yours, Madam Deputy Speaker—I do not intend to use the full time technically available to me to filibuster on this important matter, although I do hope to make an important contribution.

Potholes drive us potty in the Potteries, which is why one of my top priorities is to fix our broken roads and pavements. The great city of Stoke-on-Trent has suffered from decades of under-investment in our roads. Previous Labour-run administrations failed to invest into our road network. It was not until 2019 when Councillor Abi Brown, the former leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and her deputy, Councillor Daniel Jellyman, made the right decision to invest a record £39 million to resurface more than 1,200 roads and pavements and fix more than 30,000 potholes. This was helped by being the first local authority to have the Staffordshire technological advancement, the JCB Pothole Pro, which fixes potholes twice as fast and at half the cost of other machinery. It is excellent that we now have one of those revolutionary machines for Staffordshire County Council, which will serve the people of Kidsgrove, Whitehill, Talke, Butt Lane, Newchapel, Mow Cop and Harriseahead.

The Prime Minister’s recent Network North announcement unlocks transformational funding for our road infrastructure, demonstrating that it is a priority for this Government. More than £8.3 billion has been set aside for councils to bring roads and pavements up to scratch. The Local Government Association argues that this will significantly improve councils’ ability to improve our road infrastructure.

Despite that investment, the funding that comes to us via the National Highways funding formula is simply not good enough, and it puts pressure on a local authority with the second poorest council tax base in the country to take money from other services in order to ensure that our roads are fit for purpose. Given the pressure on local authority budgets, it is essential that smaller cities such as Stoke-on-Trent are not put at a disadvantage.

Comprised of six towns, Stoke-on-Trent is geographically unique. Realistically, my constituents need to drive or take the bus from Burslem, Tunstall, Smallthorne or Kidsgrove—to name a few—if they to go out and about, shopping, visiting loved ones, attending a GP appointment or simply enjoy a pint down the pub. People in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke rely on their cars more than people elsewhere, because we do not have a tram network like in Manchester or an underground network like in London. That is why it is essential that our city has a reliable road network to better connect our communities.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this issue. We all know that he is an assiduous and eager MP for his constituency. Does he agree that the scope of the formula ensures that rural towns and villages providing transport routes to all major towns will be fighting for the table scraps? Recognition needs to be given to the roads in small towns and rural areas on the way to the big cities. When they are closed, that means no deliveries and no commutes. The formula should treat the feeder areas as a priority as well.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which is a rite of passage in Adjournment debates. On rural communities, the Minister helpfully reminded me—believe me, I do know—that lambasting on behalf of Stoke-on-Trent will probably not go down as well with my Staffordshire-based county council, which benefits from the funding formula. Later, I will explain why the formula could be looked at or there should be a top-up element for smaller regional local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent. They need investment, while hopefully not unfairly disadvantaging rural constituencies, such as the one the hon. Gentleman represents with great dignity and pride. Ultimately, it is as important that their roads are resurfaced and repaired as it is for the places of Stoke-on-Trent. I appreciate that I am walking a tightrope with the very people I serve, but hopefully I will fall on the right side of it, if I fall at all.

Out and about in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and when dealing with casework in the office, the state of roads and pavements comes up frequently. That is evidenced by my regular pothole patrol, where my team and I go out at least twice a week across the constituency looking for roads and pavements that need repairing, reporting back to the local authority. Let me use this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Nathan, Conna, Jess and Mya, who all work in my office in Tunstall, for going out in all weathers to assist me and the community by reporting potholes to our local authority.

One of the reasons for Stoke-on-Trent’s broken roads and pavements is the unfair road funding formulas. The formulas put busy cities like Stoke-on-Trent at a disadvantage, and I have been campaigning to change them since 2020. The current highways funding formula used by the Department for Transport is calculated on road length, rather than road usage. Therefore, a busy road in the centre of a city will get less funding than a long winding D road in the countryside that is used less intensively and with fewer vehicle types such as heavy goods vehicles. Research conducted by the Department for Transport in 2018 suggests that A roads under local authority control made up only 10% of road length across the country, but that that 10% carries 31% of the nation’s traffic. Minor roads made up 88% of road length, but the proportion of traffic they carry, 34%, was only slightly greater than that on A roads. The remaining 35% of traffic is carried on the 3% of roads that are motorways or trunk A roads.

Clearly, the current road funding formula is putting smaller cities like Stoke-on-Trent at a disadvantage. I want to see new considerations introduced to the formula that would top up cities like Stoke-on-Trent, which lack the mileage of minor roads but show due regard for road type, with principal A roads attracting a premium in some way related to their reported condition. The high concentration of warehouses in Stoke-on-Trent means that our roads are used by heavy goods vehicles more regularly. Again, that puts the city at a disadvantage because bigger vehicles carrying heavier loads do more damage to road surfaces. There would need to be safeguarding against false reporting of road conditions, and it would be useful to include a match-funding element for cities, such as Stoke-on-Trent, that put precious resources into roads despite having a low council tax base.

It is not something we like to brag about in Stoke-on-Trent, but there is an old folks’ tale that the word “pothole” originated in our fine city after Josiah Wedgwood decided to dig up all the clay available in the road to make his fine pottery, and to put the pottery that was not up to scratch back into the roads to make sure we had a surface. It is not something we like to brag about, but it is certainly something we want to deal with to ensure we have a pothole-free community. When I start seeing constituents floating ducks or planting flowers in their roads—once or twice I have even thought about a bit of pitch and putt in some of the streets, because of their poor condition—it is vital that they feel they are getting their rightful investment.

Westminster City Council spends around £70 million a year on road maintenance thanks to its parking revenue. That is in stark contrast with Stoke-on-Trent, which spends on average between £700,000 and £800,000, or around 1% of Westminster’s figure. It is extremely difficult for Stoke-on-Trent to match Westminster’s parking revenues, which means more support needs to be directed to areas that struggle to generate as much revenue as the likes of Westminster. For example, I have been campaigning to resurface Gloucester Road and Newchapel Road in Kidsgrove, a key arterial road linking the parish together. Four schools, a day nursery, Maple Tree Court care home and the pump track at Newchapel Rec, which I secured from the Kidsgrove town deal funding, are all located off this road, so it is critical that it is safe for both pedestrians and motorists. Over 300 local residents today have backed my petition to Staffordshire County Council, and I hope the Minister will use this opportunity to add his weight to my campaign.

I also hope that, in trying to get the funding formula changed, the campaign will be a roaring success with motorists in the constituency, just like the victory we secured when over 1,100 residents backed my petition to call on Stoke-on-Trent City Council to rule out Sadiq Khan’s disastrous Marxist ultra low emission zone policies from coming to our great city. I commend Stoke-on-Trent Labour for its bravery in standing up against its national party policy, when Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner—I informed her ahead of the debate—said she wanted to see ULEZ

“in towns and cities across the whole of the UK”.

Cabinet member Councillor Wazir remained silent for over 100 days before finally coming out against ULEZ-loving national Labour to rule out these anti-motorist policies. It is a relief to residents across Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire, who will be able to use our improved roads without facing farcical attempts to punish them for getting from A to B.

The Government’s Network North announcement presents a new deal for the north and the midlands, helping the region to compete with London and the south-east. Along with the improvements to our bus and rail networks—such as the reopening of the Stoke to Leek line, closed since the Beeching cuts of 1969, following my petition which received the backing of over 1,000 local residents and a campaign alongside my north Staffordshire colleagues—Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire’s road network will also benefit significantly. As I said earlier, over £8.3 billion has been set aside for councils to bring roads and pavements up to scratch. Money from that £8.3 billion will be used to upgrade junction 15 of the M6, a main access route to the Potteries from the south, which will reduce delays coming off the motorway.

We are also going to see upgrades to the A50-A500 corridor from Stoke to Derby, which could save drivers over 30 minutes every weekday. These enhancements could create over 12,000 new jobs and generate millions for the west midlands economy. Following a report called “Levelling-up Stoke, Staffordshire, Derby & Derbyshire: The Road to Success”, a series of recommendations were put forward for long-awaited upgrades badly needed to alleviate bottlenecks along the 90 km-long A50-A500 corridor, which links Derby, Nottingham and Leicester to Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire and the north-west. The road is one of the UK’s key arteries and large manufacturers such as JCB, Rolls-Royce and Toyota rely on this key east-west route to keep supply chains moving and provide links to international markets.

Currently, traffic congestion on the A50-A500 threatens to stand in the way of business growth. The route sees between 60,000 and 90,000 vehicles passing along it every single day and needs urgent support. The project has the backing of MPs, local authorities and businesses, and is key to unlocking growth in the west midlands, where cities such as Stoke-on-Trent will benefit significantly if those businesses flourish. I am pleased that the money from Network North is being set aside to help deliver this key route.

Finally, while I have the Minister here, I want quickly to mention another beneficiary of the Prime Minister’s Network North announcement: Kidsgrove railway station. Having spent months negotiating who is responsible for remediation works to mitigate the risk from former mining activity at the site, I am dismayed that Network Rail has still yet to take full responsibility. Plans include a new car park to increase capacity and drive more footfall into Kidsgrove town centre, which will supplement the landmark town deal funding. That is in addition to other upgrades at the station, including new shelters on the platforms and a café. There is also the shared services hub, which is another significant beneficiary of the town deal. I am calling for Lord Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, to hold James Dean, the west coast main line’s route services director, to account for repeated failures to act in the interests of the people he is supposed to serve.

I am incredibly proud of the work we have done as a local community to secure investment in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire since 2019, but there is more to be done both in Stoke-on-Trent and nationally. The overriding mission of levelling up is to allow places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which have not seen the benefits of an economic consensus driven by Whitehall, to compete with other parts of the UK. The road funding formula is symbolic of that and changing it would be of huge benefit to our city. It is a litmus test for the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 8:27, 18 December 2023

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis on securing the debate and on enlightening the House so much, as he always does, about his amazing community—I know it well, as I visit it frequently. He is genuinely transformational in his representation of it. It is rare in an Adjournment debate to be enlightened by the words and actions of Josiah Wedgwood, the origins of the word “pothole”, a limerick or lyric to describe how they drive the community potty in the Potteries, and so much more. Reference was made to the amazing Tunstall Team, as I shall now call them, who have transformed action in the local community. I pay credit to all the team who are doing great work in bringing forward action on the local roads.

This is an important topic and there should be no doubt whatsoever that we in Government take it very seriously. My hon. Friend rightly raises the condition of local roads, which up and down the country are a matter of great importance for motorists and local communities.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

One area where potholes are at the forefront of people’s minds is Devon, where we have an 8,000-mile road network—as long as Iceland’s, and twice the length of Rwanda’s. In rural areas such as Devon, the roads are also affected by, for instance, agricultural vehicles, which place greater strains on them than are placed on urban roads.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I believe that the community that I represent in rural Northumberland is the second biggest in the country. It takes me the best part of two hours to drive across it. I am extremely familiar with the impact of the farming community, and I am well aware of the consequences of forestry lorries in my own patch in Hexham. However, I would say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the Government recently gave a 30% uplift to Devon County Council. It also gave an uplift to Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which I will discuss shortly in rather more detail. While the hon. Gentleman has made the fair point that there is much to be done to upgrade the road network, it is unquestionably the case that there has been a massive and utterly unprecedented increase in funding for local authorities up and down the country.

That derives, of course, from the Prime Minister’s October announcement about Network North and the plan for drivers, which make it clear that this Government are firmly on the side of the motorist, and also firmly on the side of those who wish to improve our road network. Even before the Network North announcement, the Government were already allocating more than £5.5 billion to local councils in England over the current Parliament to enable them to maintain their roads. On 4 October, however, the Prime Minister confirmed £8.3 billion of extra funding for highways maintenance for the next 11 years, following the challenging but necessary decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2. This unprecedented funding increase will be additional to what local authorities were expecting to receive over the period in question. It will enable an unprecedented transformation in the condition of our highways, and will help to tackle the scourge of potholes.

Local authorities in the midlands and the north that are not part of mayoral combined authority areas will also receive their share of the brand-new local integrated transport settlement fund that was announced as part of Network North. We believe that local communities know best what transport solutions work in their areas, and the LITS fund will empower local authorities to fund the local transport infrastructure that their areas need. That could include upgrading road junctions, upgrading pavements, reducing congestion, and helping buses to run more reliably. The money could also be spent on additional highway maintenance activities, over and above those already funded through the Department’s highways maintenance block, if that is a local priority—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has made it very clear that as far as he is concerned, it is a local priority. The Department hopes to publish the LITS allocations for individual local transport authorities shortly—that is, in the next couple of months.

In keeping with the Prime Minister’s commitment, all funding previously allocated to the north and the midlands will still be allocated there, which I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome. Of the £8.3 billion, £150 million is being made available in the current financial year to allow authorities to make an immediate start on resurfacing their roads. The Department made the first payments—this is apposite in the context of the debate—on 1 December, and it will give them their share of an additional £150 million again in 2024-25.

Let me now turn to what this means for local highway authorities in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. Stoke-on-Trent City Council received an extra £378,000 this month as its share of the Network North uplift, on top of the earlier increase of £528,000 that it received as part of the £200 million uplift announced in the 2023 Budget. That means that, overall, Stoke-on-Trent will receive 30% more road repair funding than it received last year, which is a massive step forward. This is, we believe, a real and tangible benefit that the people of Stoke-on-Trent will see for themselves, and a great testament to the work of my hon. Friend and his Stoke-on-Trent colleagues in advocating more road investment.

That share of the uplift is very good news for my hon. Friend’s constituents. All this takes Stoke-on-Trent’s total highway maintenance funding from the Department to more than £3.8 million in the current financial year, on top of about £1.6 million of integrated transport block funding. Over the full 11 years of Network North funding—as my hon. Friend knows, it is provided for a period on a continuous basis—Stoke-on-Trent will receive an additional amount of more than £22 million.

I note that some of my hon. Friend’s constituency falls in Staffordshire, and I take on board the point raised by my good friend Jim Shannon. Some support will also go to Staffordshire County Council, amounting to an uplift of more than £3 million this month, on top of the increase of £4.5 million that it received after the 2023 Budget. Over the full 11 years of Network North funding, Staffordshire will receive over £186 million of additional funding. This long-term certainty gives time for local authorities and their supply chains to ramp up and then deliver their programmes of work. The funding is much more than the local highway authorities were expecting and represents an increase of around two thirds in the Department’s support for local highway maintenance. We want to ensure that the funding delivers a transformational improvement in the condition of local roads.

With so much extra funding, there also needs to be greater scrutiny of how the money is spent. We will therefore require all local authorities to publish by March 2024 a summary of the additional resurfacing work that they will deliver with the new funding over the next two years. They will thereafter publish quarterly reports summarising what additional work they have done and which roads have been resurfaced, and then publish a long-term plan for the full use of their 11-year funding and the transformation it will deliver.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of ringfencing and I want to try to address that. Clearly this is an important point about the way in which funding is provided to local authorities. I know that some would prefer capital funding for local councils to be ringfenced, and I have some sympathy with that argument, but the funding is not strictly speaking ringfenced in law. What happens is that, in providing it, the Department makes it clear to all local authorities that it expects every penny to be spent on highway maintenance activities. If there is any evidence that it is not, the Department makes it clear that it reserves the right to reduce future grant payments to the authority.

Those new reporting requirements that we are imposing as part of Network North will also allow the public as well as Members of this House to hold their local authorities to account to ensure that we have proper use of the funding. We want to introduce proper, democratic accountability for taxpayer-funded repairs to roads and upgrades to potholes, so that there is proper accountability and we can ensure that this funding is being spent properly.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about the way in which the current funding formula works. He argued that it should take account of traffic volumes as well as road lengths, to reflect the fact that urban roads generally carry more traffic and therefore need more maintenance than lightly trafficked rural roads. I accept that this is a potential argument and it is one that he makes with great eloquence, although others have pushed back and, representing a highly rural community with thousands of miles of roads, I fully understand the alternative argument.

The funding formula methodology was created following a public consultation in 2014. Traffic volumes and different types of traffic certainly contribute to road wear and tear, but there are other factors, such as the weather, that can cause roads to deteriorate. The Department has no immediate plans to change the formula, and we would not do so without consultation with local authorities. That would unquestionably be required. Any change would result in winners and losers across the country, which would without a shadow of a doubt be a matter of concern to many Members of the House and to individual local authorities. The most important thing the Department can do is to increase the overall funding amount to benefit all local highway authorities, and this is what we have announced with the Network North plan. Obviously, as always in this House, we take on board the comments made by my hon. Friend, and this is part of the ongoing debate and consideration, but I stress that it is not our intention to proceed down that route at the moment.

My hon. Friend raised specific roads—I think Gloucester Road was one that he mentioned—and I take those points on board. Clearly, good-quality roads are essential, upgrade is important and the good maintenance of the roads is vital. We are working with local highway authorities in England and National Highways to assess the condition of road surfaces, but we are also working with the British Standards Institute and the Transport Research Laboratory to develop a new standard for assessing road condition which will help councils to deal with road defects more effectively.

We are also encouraging the use of new technologies into the market, one of which is the famous Pothole Pro that my hon. Friend mentioned, which was developed in his area. It is a genuinely innovative way ahead for dealing with this, and I greatly look forward to getting involved with it. I am trying to persuade the Department to find me the appropriate bit of machinery that I will then drive to address his particular problem. There are some health and safety issues that I have to overcome, but he will understand that it is a mission with which I am shortly to engage.

We want to reduce the time that drivers lose, and the stress that they experience, due to roadworks. We are also making it quicker and easier for local councils to establish lane rental schemes, and we are consulting on requiring local authorities with such schemes to use at least half of any surplus funds on pothole repairs. We are also helping councils to find innovative ways to look after their roads through the £30 million Live Labs programme run by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, which will try new, environmentally friendly ways of managing and maintaining local roads in various parts of the country.

Through Live Labs, we are testing a wide range of different highways materials to support the move towards net zero carbon for local roads and infrastructure. My hon. Friend will be aware of the plan for drivers, which the Government announced in the autumn. We are not only trying to support motorists in a variety of individual ways, as set out in the plan, but we are using taxpayers’ money to support local authorities with record increases in funding. There has never been such funding.

The Government are putting in place transformational new funding to maintain the local road network over the next 11 years, with significant uplifts from the present basis. We are firmly on the side of the motorist, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.