Potholes and Road Maintenance

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 5 June 2018.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:00, 5 June 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, in discussing this vital issue.

On the surface, potholes and road maintenance may not sound like the most appealing or urgent of concerns. However, roads are a reflection of a country’s infrastructure and ability to provide essential services. Good roads are the lifeblood of our country. They connect communities, families, livelihoods and industries. They allow ambulances to reach their destinations faster, citizens to spend less of their already busy lives in traffic, and the police to reach those in need more quickly.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. Does she agree that potholes not only present a cost, an inconvenience and sometimes a delay to motorists, but are a severe risk to life and limb for people riding bikes? Some 390 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured in the last 10 years as a result of potholes and bad road surfaces.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I entirely agree, and I was going to come on to that point in my speech a bit further down the road.

Today, our roads are unarguably in a state of disrepair that worsens by the day. A brief survey of the facts reveals that the challenges that we face will increase if the Government continue to ignore concerns.

Photo of Stephen Hepburn Stephen Hepburn Labour, Jarrow

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing today’s debate. Does it not just show the mess the country is in that the Labour party has had to call a major parliamentary debate on potholes? Does it not also show what a false economy the Government’s seven years of austerity have been? They have made £200 million available to local councils to sort out potholes, when in the north-east alone we need £1 billion.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I entirely agree, and I will touch on that point later.

The Local Government Association recently stated that we are facing a “roads crisis”. That is demonstrated by the worst findings that the LGA has found since it began measuring potholes in 2006. The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring has found that pothole faults have worsened for the fourth consecutive quarter. An estimated 24,000 miles of road require repair in the next year, and 20% of local roads are thought likely to fail in the next five years.

Those issues are not being dealt with anywhere near fast enough, culminating in an extraordinary backlog of work that needs to be done. It is estimated that a one-time catch-up on that backlog would take 14 years to complete and cost £9.31 billion. That figure is alarming, but it will, of course, only get bigger if action is not taken right now.

Photo of Laura Smith Laura Smith Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on compensation as a result of the damage caused by potholes?

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

Absolutely, and I will come on to that point later.

The decline has been noted by drivers, with 51% of motorists saying that the conditions of local roads worsened between 2016 and 2017. Only 7% said that they had improved. An overwhelming majority—92%—attributed that to road surfaces and the numerous potholes on the roads. Most significantly, the situation is extremely dangerous for those travelling by bus, bike and foot. In 2016, poor or defective road surfaces was found to be the key contributing factor in 598 road traffic accidents, 12 of which produced fatalities.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate—it is a shame it is only 30 minutes. Three massive sinkholes have appeared in recent weeks in my constituency, causing road havoc and other inconvenience to my constituents. Does she agree that local authorities and other stakeholders must put people and safety first—above the various organisational arguments about who pays and who does the corrective work?

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course, one of the problems is that local authorities’ budgets have been slashed consistently over the last eight years, to the point that local authorities are often left able to deal only with their legal obligations, and potholes and road repairs have to be put on the backburner.

Such worries are particularly serious for cyclists, as my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury mentioned. Between 2007 and 2016, Government statistics show that at least 390 people were killed or seriously injured as a direct consequence of potholes and other road defects. More than 15 times that number of people are reported to have had less serious crashes because of them.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As a cyclist, I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does she accept that one of the biggest dangers is the poor repair of trenches? Public utilities coming in and doing an inferior repair is the most dangerous thing of all for cyclists.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is absolutely correct; I cannot disagree with that.

Damaged roads are also a serious concern for the elderly and for children. Some roads in my constituency of Bolton South East are particularly problematic. The potholes in Westland Avenue are so big that when it rains, the rainwater stays. That has caused damage to people’s homes. At least four families have had to be taken away from their homes to be rehoused elsewhere, and two other families are living in the upstairs part of their home.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I just want to pick her up on a couple of points. We are spending about £23 billion a year on fixing potholes and roads. The amount that was given in the last Budget to my own county to fix the roads was close to £20 million. We must put pressure on local councils to do the job properly.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I will come on to the blaming of local councils, but first I will finish talking about roads in my constituency.

Bridgewater Street has Maxton House, a supported home for the elderly and people with dementia, on it. Over a number of months, there have been six accidents alone on that particular road. Again, the work has not been done. A recent RAC survey found that the condition and maintenance of local roads was the second-ranked motoring issue in an extensive list that also included safety, cost and mobility concerns.

Local authorities have paid more than £70 million in pothole compensation since 2013. That amounts to unnecessary wastage of more than 25% of the £250 million the Government announced in its 2013 pothole action fund. Collectively, the AA calculates that potholes are costing drivers and insurers £1 million every month. That situation is not normal or acceptable. It is a result of a perverse funding system, as was highlighted by a respondent to the House of Commons Facebook page. Discussing today’s debate, Rob commented:

“England’s roads are just one big pothole;
the councils have neglected them through lack of cash”.

That is the important point: it is about a lack of cash. My local authority has had its budget slashed by 54% in the last eight years. Since it has to satisfy its legal obligations, such as looking after the elderly, the young and the vulnerable, there is no money left. I do not know where hon. Members expect it to find the money. I know there is a magic money tree for the Democratic Unionist party, but there is not one in Bolton for the roads.

Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) (Community Health)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and making a very strong case. My own authority, Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council, is out there measuring reported potholes to decide whether they are deep enough to repair. Many do not satisfy the requirement, but what we find is that small potholes become big potholes, which become trenches. It is a total false economy.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is absolutely correct. In 2015-16, my local authority spent £6.5 million on repairing roads. It had to find that money. Continually to blame local authorities for the fact that they do not have the money is completely wrong. I do not know where the £23 billion for potholes came from, because I can assure hon. Members that none of that money has made its way to my council in Bolton. My council now needs at least £108 million to fully repair the potholes across the borough. The Government repeatedly argue that this is a local council issue and that it is down to local councils to allocate more money. How are they to allocate money they do not have? Where are they expected to find that money from? Most parts of Bolton do not have massive, expensive homes. Bolton does not have loads of businesses it can raise local rates from. It needs national Government settlement funding, which has been cut for the last eight years.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

I reiterate the point on cycling that other hon. Members have made: 64 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in 2016, so it is a serious issue.

On the value-for-money point, would the hon. Lady agree that using a Jetpatcher to repair a whole section of road, as Central Bedfordshire Council and other councils are doing, can sometimes be more efficient and a better use of taxpayers’ money than filling individual potholes that then just continue to develop?

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am sure there are good ways of trying to repair roads, but they all require money. Even the cheaper option that the hon. Gentleman suggests requires money to be made available. The problem is that the money is not there.

One of the purposes of today’s debate is to highlight to the Minister and the Government the importance of the issue. I do not know why people here seem to be in denial about the fact that there is chronic underfunding and cutting of grants to local authorities. I know some constituencies and parts of the country are very wealthy and can raise enough rates to meet all their needs, but my local authority needs assistance.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

So do many others, such as Burnley. Chronic underfunding has led to extremely worrying short-termism on the part of local councils. They have opted for the inexpensive, short-term solution, which of course fails to tackle the actual issue of repairing the whole road. We know that at some later point, there will be problems on that road.

It does not have to be that way. I urge the Government to increase funding to local authorities. They have said that they gave some money in a package in March, but that was not new funding; it had already been announced. A huge funding gap still exists, and the backlogs are still there. We need that money.

The Government need to understand a simple point: if they keep doing the same thing, we will see the same result: we will have to endure worse and less safe roads. We will have to pick up the personal costs of damage to our vehicles and the collective cost of wasted taxpayers’ money on compensation. On top of those fees, we will have to endure more years of this Government deflecting blame and refusing to take responsibility, when their miserly approach has come back to bite the people that they purport to represent.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time, and I am grateful to her for giving way. My constituency in west Oxfordshire has a similar great problem with potholes, on both major and rural roads. I declare my interest as a cyclist. Potholes are a danger to me, but they do damage to vehicles too. Does she agree that prevention is better than cure? Would she encourage utility companies, as the Government are doing, not to put their facilities in roads, so that when those facilities have to be fixed, damage is not caused to the roads? Potholes are much more likely to reoccur where there is a structure in the road, rather than on the side.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

There are many things that local authorities, working collectively, can do to try to mitigate the problems, and I am sure there are constructive ways of working, but—I am sorry that I sound like a broken tape recorder—how are they to do that? To be able to meet its legal obligations for social care, my local authority had to raise rates by 3% so it could meet the shortfall in social care funding for vulnerable people in my constituency. When the choice is between potholes and elderly, young or disabled people, the decision is obviously going to be for the vulnerable person. We need extra money. Not to have our roads properly repaired and not to have safe roads is counterproductive, for all the reasons I already stated.

There is a win-win here. A massive, extensive road-building programme will create jobs. There will be more production of the raw materials; there will be, for example, more factories producing cement and tarmac and all that is required for roads, and that will boost the manufacturing sector. It is a win-win.

I hope the Minister has heard what I have had to say. We need more money. I know this is not the sexiest subject in the world, but it is very important to my constituents and to the country.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:17, 5 June 2018

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am very grateful to Yasmin Qureshi for securing this debate. She describes the topic as not sexy, but I regard it as extraordinarily important and alluring. Its importance has been well brought out by the number of colleagues from across the House who are sitting here for a half-hour debate to register their concerns. I am sure many will wish to intervene on my speech, as they have already done during the hon. Lady’s speech.

In her speech, she ran two things together: the general question of funding for local authorities and the question of roads funding. I am not going to engage with the wider issue; she can raise that in a different debate if she so wishes. I will engage with the questions raised under the heading of the debate. Both are important—it is not just about potholes; it is also about road maintenance. I hope I will be clear in my remarks that far from nothing being done, an enormous amount is being done. I will set out exactly how.

Let me start by saying that I think everyone recognises the great importance of the local road network to the British economy—the Government certainly do—and it is going to become more important in the future as we see autonomous vehicles come in. After all, local roads form something like 98% of our national highways network. As the hon. Lady says, local authorities have an existing legal duty to maintain local roads under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980. Responsibility lies with them in the first instance, but I absolutely recognise, as I said in Transport questions the other day, that there is a case for a more long-term, strategic approach to local roads.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

The Minister talks of the need for a long-term solution. Will he consider what the Local Government Association has proposed, whereby the Government would reinvest 2p per litre of current fuel duty into local road maintenance so that we have a consistent stream of funding long into the future?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

One of the many reasons why it is wrong to characterise the Government as not investing in infrastructure is that we have, for the first time in decades, created a roads fund, to be funded by vehicle excise duty. It is subject to negotiation with the Treasury, of course, but we hope to continue on the path of increasing investment across our road network and supporting not just strategic roads but local roads. Investment already runs at a little over £1 billion a year. I will of course take the Local Government Association’s suggestions to heart, but my hon. Friend should be aware that, over the next few years, we will be investing on a more hypothecated basis at a very high level.

Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) (Community Health)

On the funding of road maintenance, does the Minister agree that prevention is far better than cure? In my authority of Lancashire, eight years of neglected road maintenance, due to a lack of funding, has led to a very expensive problem. Does he agree that lessons need to be learned for the future?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I agree with the hon. Lady, and she has accurately reproduced one of the central principles of the 2012 potholes review, which was widely endorsed by everyone. Later in my speech, I will talk about how seriously we are taking that point.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that he takes these issues seriously. Will he ask the Department for Transport to have a serious conversation with the Treasury about the severity of our winters? In central Bedfordshire, we have had 90 salt runs this year, compared with an average of 50. As he knows very well, salt does a great deal of damage to our roads. There is a case for enabling the Treasury to flex the additional money it gives to councils in response to very long, severe winters like the one we just had.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Of course that is right. Flood resilience and other funding has been made available, and can be tweaked in response to that. Many local authorities were not prepared for the severity of last winter and the repeated freezes that damaged our roads. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The wider point is that, as part of a strategic and longer-term view of local roads funding, we can create greater resilience in the network as a whole so that those kinds of events can be better dealt with.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous with his time. He spoke of a strategic approach to funding, but will he also consider a strategic approach to rural roads? In many parts of Oxfordshire—particularly west Oxfordshire, where I am—we are essentially dealing with cart tracks that have been tarmacked at some point and need long-term maintenance. Will he consider that point?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I very much do consider that point. I live in a rural consistency that has urban roads in Hereford and lots of rural roads around it, so I take both sides of that argument extremely seriously. The facts are interesting. Although there has rightly been a lot of concern about the recent effects of the winter, A and B roads have gradually improved, by and large, as our annual road conditions survey work shows. It may well be that, as we look at the effect of the last quarter or two, that picture will have changed due to the severity of the winter, but that is the overall picture. However, that does not address the issue of C and U roads, which are a further cause of concern, and my hon. Friend quite properly raises it.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will take one more in half a second, but I want to be sure I can leave a minute to the hon. Member for Bolton South East.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If I do not need to do that and can just run through to the end, that gives me time.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

I am very grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention. Potholes do not stop at the border. In Scotland, where the Conservatives are not currently in charge of road maintenance—I hope that changes, with Ruth Davidson as First Minister—we have more than 153,000 potholes, so it is a problem no matter which Government are in charge. Does the Minister agree that my constituents in Moray would be better served if local authorities repaired the potholes, rather than paid out millions of pounds in compensation? In the end, the taxpayer has to pay one way or another.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

It is certainly preferable, as the potholes review and other survey work recognised, that it be done right first time. Roads should be reinstated in a way that allows the changes to be durable, and road surfaces should be able to stand inclement weather.

Our overall approach is based on principles of asset management, increasing over time. The Government are investing about £6 billion in the network between 2015 and 2021—about £1 billion a year—including through the pothole action fund. That money is increasingly being used as part of a more strategic, asset management-type approach to the roads, which is important. As part of that, we have looked very hard at how we can help highway authorities to adopt planned and preventive maintenance that treats the asset as such, rather than just respond reactively to problems that emerge. Those principles are already demonstrating benefits in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability, value for money and improved customer service, and we want to continue to work on that.

As matters are presently handled, there is a formula, and rightly so. We do not think councils should constantly have to apply for the vast preponderance of the funding that they receive from the Department for local roads. They should be funded according to an easier and fairer formula.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

Does the Minister agree that the £43 million and the officer time spent because 156 local authorities have to deal with claims from motorists and other road users as a result of pothole damage and injury is a waste of money?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I certainly think that is true. I do not know whether it is a waste of money; it is perfectly proper to spend that money on people who have claims, but it would be nice if those claims were as low as possible, and improvements to the local road network can ameliorate that. The point is that the formula is in place and is a fair and equitable way of allocating funding.

I note that the Department has given about £6 million to Bolton through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The hon. Member for Bolton South East is concerned about the wellbeing of her own constituents, but the GMCA covers a very wealthy part of the country.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will, but I am very short of time and I have a lot of material to cover. In fact, I will not give way—I am going to crack on.

I have touched on the potholes review; let me talk very briefly about a few other things. Members mentioned the effect of poor road reinstatements by utility companies, and they are absolutely right to do so. There are powers to deal with such issues, and we are currently reviewing and updating the rules, known as the specification for the reinstatement of openings in highways, to ensure that the most innovative new techniques are adopted and that reinstatements are treated properly so that disruption is minimised wherever possible.

Hon. Members will be aware of something called lane rental, which we have pioneered in London and Kent. It is applied to the most congested 5% of the network and requires funds to be spent on ways of reducing congestion caused by street works, and not on general road maintenance. We have announced that that scheme will be used more widely over the next year or two. We will issue bidding guidance later this year for local authorities that want to take advantage of it.

The new street manager scheme, which we have set up, is a piece of software linked to a digital service that allows local authorities and other registered bodies to put in accurate and up-to-date data on live and planned works. It should enable utilities works to be better co-ordinated to put less pressure on roads. It is a very important long-term scheme.

Local authorities can choose whether to have permit schemes, which are a very effective way of planning and co-ordinating works to reduce the impact on congestion and on the roads. About 65% of local authorities have them. We are about to publish an evaluation of permit schemes, which shows that they are superior to the passive notices schemes used by the other 35% of authorities.

In the minute and a half I have left, let me touch on new technology. There are plenty of ways in which new technology can make a difference in this area. We are pioneering pothole spotting, using new technologies in partnership with the councils in Thurrock, York and Wiltshire. It involves high-definition cameras attached to vehicles to gather rich data about the highways and assess levels of road deterioration. That project, which has already won a national award, has enormous potential.

We are starting to work even more closely with the sector and key stakeholders, including the Highways Term Maintenance Association, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, the RAC Foundation, which has been mentioned, local highway authorities, contractors, consultants, academia and others to try to improve the work we do and to ensure “right first time” maintenance and higher quality road surfaces.

We all acknowledge the importance of this issue. I hope colleagues will understand my level of engagement as a Minister with this question and that of some of my officials. I have outlined my interest in having a longer-term, more strategic approach that covers urban and rural roads. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolton South East shares my optimism as we continue to work with local highway authorities on a wide range of initiatives, including the ones I have described, to improve our local road network.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.