With temperatures set to plummet this weekend, local authorities are bracing themselves for more reports of potholes on their roads.
The issue of how councils pay for road repairs – not to mention insurance claims from aggrieved drivers – is a hardy perennial in town hall circles.
And the latest figures from the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA)’s annual alarm survey make for gloomy reading. The total pothole repair bill in England currently stands at £11.8bn and set to rise to £14bn by 2019.
Those figures prompted a call last weekend from the Local Government Association (LGA) for the government to increase roads maintenance budgets by £1bn to meet the growing backlog of pothole repairs.
The LGA’s transport spokesperson and Buckinghamshire County Council leader, Cllr Martin Tett, even warned 2017 could be a ‘tipping point year regarding potholes’.
‘It is becoming increasingly urgent to address the roads crisis we face as a nation,’ said Cllr Tett.
In the meantime, several local authorities are turning to new technology and other innovations to help prevent the UK’s roads from literally going to pot.
Last month, Cumbria County Council became the first local authority in the country to trial a new ‘plastic road’ surface, which has been developed by MacRebur.
The company has produced a bitumen substitute called MR6, which has been made from locally-sourced waste plastic.
By adding MR6 pellets in the standard asphalt mix, the company has developed a road surface, which it hopes is stronger and more durable.
The new surface was laid at a junction on the A6, near Caithwaite in December, which is the first time it has been laid on a public highway in the UK.
‘It will provide a stronger and more sustainable solution for road surfacing and filling potholes, I look forward to treating more roads across the Cumbria network in the coming months and years,’ said Cumbria’s cabinet member for highways and transport, Cllr Keith Little.
The managing director of MacRebur, Toby McCartney, added: ‘Cumbria is leading the way in innovation into their road networks and at the same time reducing the plastic waste that is dumped into landfill sites.’
Meanwhile, West Sussex County Council claims its proactive approach to potholes has seen the number identified and fixed on the county’s roads increase by 40% in the last 12 months.
Highways maintenance teams are now free to fix potholes they discover when they are out fixing those reported by local residents, who can report potholes on their smartphones, though the council’s Love West Sussex app, online or by calling West Sussex CC’s contract centre.
‘We coordinate many repairs, in close proximity, at the same time,’ said Balfour Beatty contract director, Steve Philips. ‘As a result of our smart approach, the cost to a West Sussex taxpayer of fixing potholes is 30% lower than the national average.’
A hole in the finances
Derbyshire County Council is now part way through its £23m accelerated highways maintenance programme, which it started two years ago after digging into its own reserves.
So far, the programme has seen their highways teams repair more than 24,000 potholes across Derbyshire and ‘surface dress’ 250 miles of roads to seal them and prevent any more appearing in the future.
According to the council, sealing the roads will prevent water getting in and cracks and potholes forming and roads that are surface dressed can last for between 10 and 15 years, and depending on how well-used they are.
‘The government has placed infrastructure investment at the heart of its economic policy, as a catalyst for improved national productivity, but ensuring that local roads are up to scratch is vitally important for this vision to be a success,’ said Derbyshire’s leader and County Councils’ Network (CCN) economic growth spokesperson, Cllr Anne Western.
‘CCN supports the LGA’s call for existing fuel duty to be directed towards road maintenance – but counties must receive their fair share.
‘Counties’ prudence in optimising a dwindling pot of money is regularly displayed, with thousands of potholes fixed every year – but unless addressed, an already significant backlog will worsen,’ added Cllr Western.
The Roads Surface Treatment Association (RSTA) also backed the LGA’s calls for more funding.
A spokesperson for the RSTA said several of its members are developing or using new technologies to deal with potholes, including micro-asphalts, which have been developed to give retained macro-textures similar to thin asphalt surfacing.
Spray injection patching is another example, which provides rapid pothole repairs with the minimum disruption to the road user.
‘Cash-strapped local highway authorities are doing what they can and over the last year they have filled in over two million potholes,’ said RSTA chief executive, Howard Robinson.
‘However, the lack of assured real long-term funding means that much of this is expensive reactive repair rather than cost-effective preventative maintenance that would have prevented the potholes from forming in the first place. This has long been the logical economic argument forwarded by the road maintenance industry.
‘A further £1bn annual investment would certainly help local authorities tackle the damage done by under-investment by successive governments,’ added Mr Robinson.
The chair of ADEPT engineering board, Parvis Khansari, said: ‘Although recognising the importance of local road networks, central government has not injected more money into critically needed routine highway maintenance, leaving ADEPT members and all local highway authorities disappointed.
‘Filling potholes is a symptomatic reaction, so the highways sector continues to explore ways to cost effectively perpetuate a “patchwork quilt” approach instead of being able to proactively intervene earlier in the road deterioration cycle. Early intervention techniques (such as surface course rejuvenation methods) and innovative techniques (particularly increasing exploration of small-scale on-site road surface patch recycling) continue to be deployed, but these are not the answer.
‘The government’s media-led fixation on potholes is distracting attention from what should be the real focus – overall road condition. Although the recent milder winters are disguising the ongoing road deterioration process – a severe winter will have a major and costly impact on road condition and the government needs to be reminded of this fact. ADEPT members regularly submit accurate information to the AIA as it strives to compile up-to-date backlog figures and we encourage all local highway authorities to do the same.’
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