The state of the nation’s roads

Are our roads fit enough to cope with the demand we place on them? We investigate the current state of play in the UK.

Are our roads fit enough to cope with the demand we place on them? We investigate the current state of play in the UK.

The cost of fixing our broken roads

It would take ten years and almost £10 billion to mount a one-off campaign to fix Britain’s crumbling roads.

The figures have been revealed in a report by the Asphalt Industry Alliance that shines a light on the health of our local roads and has prompted calls for a £1.5 billion fund to make them fit to use.

The Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey showed that one pothole was filled every 17 seconds in the UK in England and Wales last year at a cost of £97.8 million.

Yet despite this – and a 20% increase in the annual highway maintenance budget – councils across the country are £657 million short of the cash they need to keep our roads in a good condition.

Rick Green

Chariman of the Asphalt Industry Alliance

“It is encouraging that those in control of the purse strings have recognised that long-term underinvestment, with a rising bill to put it right. It is, of course, a long journey from slowing decline to improving overall conditions and this additional investment could go to waste if it is not continued. So, our message is: don’t stop now.

“Last year we called for an additional £1.5 billion of funding to be made available for local roads each year for the next 10 years to allow them to be brought up to a condition from which they can be managed in a cost-effective way. We stand by this call.”

Transport spending in the UK

The RAC alone faced 1,714 breakdowns caused by potholes and poor road surfaces in the last three months of 2018.

Poor roads aren’t just a problem for motorists either, with Department for Transport data showing that at least 390 cyclists were killed or seriously hurt between 2007 and 2016 because of potholes.

Motorists across the country have a mixed experience when it comes to the state of the roads they drive on – with some areas having a repair budget that’s as much as ten times higher than others.

Mr Green said: “There is still a big discrepancy between the haves and the have nots when it comes to local highway maintenance budgets. Some local authorities received highway maintenance pots equivalent to more than £90,000 per mile of their individual networks, while a third continue to struggle with reduced budgets, with several having less than £9,000 per mile to maintain their local roads.

“Understandably, this means hard-pressed local highway teams continue to focus on primary routes and achieving their target conditions on all categories of local road still remains out of reach. To put this in context, if local authorities had enough funds to meet their own targets it would give us 20,000 more miles of improved local roads.”

Poor roads aren’t just a problem for motorists either, with Department for Transport data showing that at least 390 cyclists were killed or seriously hurt between 2007 and 2016 because of potholes.

The Road Surface Treatments Association argues that our roads need to be properly looked after to prevent the scourge of potholes and the constant need for repairs.

It said that surface dressing costs £2 per m2 whereas pothole repairs cost £52 per m2.

Mike Harper

RTSA Chief Executive

"Successive governments have failed to understand the economic and social importance of a well-maintained local road network and have failed to provide local authorities with the necessary assured funding to carry out planned programmes of maintenance. The result is that councils are playing a never game of pothole patch-up.”

The state of the nation’s roads in numbers

The ALARM survey found that:

1. Average annual highway maintenance budgets for 2018/19 rose 20% and amounted to £24.5 million per authority (£31.5 million in England; £10.6m in London; £7.8 million in Wales).

3. It would cost £9.79 billion to get roads back into reasonable condition (£69.9 million per authority in England; £31.9 million in London; £36.3 million in Wales) and take ten years.

5. The carriageway maintenance budget is short by £657 million (£4.1 million per authority in England; £4.0 million in London; £2.8 million in Wales).

2. Each road is resurfaced every 67 years on average. 

4. 1.86 million potholes were filled in England and Wales the equivalent of 1 every 17 seconds

6. The spend on road user compensation claims was £26.7 million, including £6.9 million paid out in compensation. 

Potholes and plastic waste: a single solution for both?

One innovative business reckons it can help to fix our roads and reduce the amount of plastic waste going to landfill in one fell swoop.

MacRebur has developed a way to use waste plastic to surface roads and car parks – transforming carrier bags, water bottles and used nappies into plastic granules that can help to make the asphalt used to surface our roads.

One km of road can use the equivalent of 684,000 bottles or 1.8 million single use carrier bags and this process extends the bitumen needed with plastic waste, as well potentially reducing landfill.

CEO Toby McCartney said: “We have been working with Cumbria County Council for around two years and as the Government announced in January, we are now part of a £1.6m plastic roads trial in the area.

“Some of our roads have been in situ for two years now and the results of our testing have shown that MacRebur works, which means there is a huge opportunity now for everyone who is using asphalt, whether for private or public projects, to do the right thing and use plastic waste for the good of our planet.”

MacRebur has sent plastic pellets off for trial in Canada, Russia, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand.

What damage can potholes do to your car?

Hitting a pothole can cause your car or van to suffer a number of wheel and tyre problems. Mark Furneaux, Director of Whoops Wheel Fix It, explained what damage can be done when you drive over a pothole.

He said: “Pothole damage is common in our area – London – as it is across the country. It can cause the wheel to crack or buckle. Both are repairable but will never be the same again. You can weld cracks but the weakest point will be the crack. So the next pothole could easily crack the weld.

“Straightening a buckled wheel is possible but not always possible. Some specialist equipment is necessary to repair more extensive buckles.

“There is nothing you can really do to protect the wheel from buckles or cracks other than to avoid them completely.

“Keeping the tyres at the correct pressure would be a key factor in making sure your alloy is protected from damage.”

Mr Pothole: the campaigner who made his name on a road
repair crusade

One man felt so passionately about the need to fix the nation’s roads that became famous as ‘Mr Pothole’. 

Mark Morrell, from Brackley in Northamptonshire, began campaigning for road fixes in his native county in 2013 and through tireless lobbying helped to secure a million pounds worth of repairs.

He took his crusade countrywide before eventually stepping back from his work in February due to ill health.

Mr Morrell told ITV: "Hopefully I’ve made a difference, hopefully I’ve at least saved someone getting injured if not killed.

"I got into it because of a dangerous pothole on an A-road through a village called Farthinghoe where people were going on to the other side of the road to avoid the pothole with oncoming traffic.

"Even though I reported it nothing happened. Eventually I ended up ringing the police on 101 because I didn’t want an incident there with someone getting killed or injured."

The worst roads for potholes

The Mirror used Freedom of Information requests to uncover the nation’s worst roads when it comes to pothole complaints.

The worst ten roads in the country were:

‘Potholes are the biggest enemy for road users’

The Government has vowed to act to improve the state of the nation’s roads – with new rules on repairs, extra funding and trials of new solutions to fix the issues facing motorists.

A consultation is looking into ways utility firms can be forced to come back and fix a road within five years if one emerges in a stretch where they carried out roadworks. The current guarantee covers two years.

Chris Grayling, transport secretary, said: “Potholes are the biggest enemy for road users and this government is looking at all options to keep our roads in the best condition.

“Road surfaces can be made worse by utility companies, so imposing higher standards on repairs will help keep roads pothole-free for longer.”

The Government also wants to allow for the use of new surfacing types to make roads less prone to potholing and pledged £420 million extra funding in November to fund extra road repairs.

It will also:

  • Expand the test of plastic roads in Cumbria (see above)
  • Use kinetic energy off Buckinghamshire roads to power lighting
  • Use geothermal energy to keep car parks and in Central Bedfordshire bus stations from freezing over.

Britain’s busy road network

The sheer number of cars on the nation’s roads goes some way to explaining why the pressure to maintain them is high. 

There are said to be 31.6 million cars on the road in the UK. Given the average car length, that means they could cover the length of every one of the UK’s 50 motorways 39.42 times if they were all out at the same time – or the entire length of the UK’s longest motorway, the M6, 308.5 times. If stretched out in a row they could reach from London to New York and back 13 times. 

That all goes some way to explaining why congestion is an issue. Inrix data published in 2019 showed that motorists lost an average of 178 hours each in total to congestion in 2018. It also estimated the value of the time lost to be around £7.9bn which is £1,317 per driver.

Congestion on the UK’s roads:

  • Road congestion cost the UK economy £8bn in 2018
  • The average speed for journeys into the London and Edinburgh central business was 7mph
    61 hours are wasted by the average driver on the A406 between the Chiswick Roundabout and Hanger Lane, west London
  • Car traffic grew to 254.4 billion vehicle miles (bvm) in 2017, the highest annual car traffic estimate ever
  • Van traffic grew quicker than any type, rising 2.7% from 2016 to 50.5 bvm
  • Motorways attracted 68.7 bvm, 1.4% more traffic than 2016 and 10% more than ten years ago

The worst roads in the UK for congestion

According to the Department for Transport, these are the worst A roads in the country for congestion. The average congestion for A roads in the UK is 47.3 – and on smaller roads the number is 9.4.

Road Location Seconds per vehicle per mile
A299 Kent 60
A289 Kent 59.6
A331 Hampshire 56.8
A354 Hampshire 55.8
A15 North Lincolnshire 55.5

Road tax: the £250,000 question

A graduate earned a £250,000 prize for a pioneering plan that set out how we could fund our roads in a fairer way. 

Gergely Raccuja, who studied at UCL, won the Wolfson Economics Prize for his answer to the question: “How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment?”

He argued that:

  • We should scrap fuel duty (the tax on petrol and diesel) and Vehicle Excise Duty (what many people call ‘road tax’)
  • This should be replaced with a charge based on the distance a motorist travels in a year
  • Lighter and cleaner vehicles would pay a lower rate
  • The ‘road bill’ would be collected by insurers to reduce admin costs
  • The money should be ring-fenced to create a ‘pothole-free Britain’ in five years.

Raccuja is not the only person to think the current system needs an overhaul – and that the tax system should reflect the use of cars rather than outright ownership.

Motoring journalist Felicity Hannah wrote: “As a country, we benefit from people using their cars less. Cars pollute local areas, they fill the roads and they cause accidents.

“What we actually want to encourage is for people to drive fewer miles and to do more walking, cycling, running and using public transport. The answer to that is to increase Fuel Duty instead, not to hit drivers with a blanket annual vehicle excise duty (VED).”

Recent reforms to VED have introduced new tax bands for vehicles registered from 2017 – and more changes are planned for 2020 to impose stricter tax bands based on emissions.

What is road tax?

The payment known by many people as ‘road tax’ is actually called Vehicle Excise Duty – a tax levied on all cars used or parked on public roads in the UK. The amount paid is based on a car’s carbon emissions. This money goes into the general taxation pot and isn’t ring-fenced to be spent directly on roads. 

Smart motorways

The UK’s smart motorway network is set to almost double in length by 2025 – with plans to rebrand them as ‘digital roads’ and reform the way they work.

There are currently 416 miles of smart motorway, including parts of the M1, M4, M6, M25, M42 and M62, but this will soon be expanded to 788 miles. Emergency lay-bys will replace the hard shoulder and the speed limit past roadworks will increase from 50mph to 60mph.

Smart motorways are roads which use ‘active traffic management’ – where technology is used to reduce speed limits, close lanes using overhead signs and open up the hard shoulder to control traffic congestion.

Laybys will be introduced every miles, while new roadside technology will support the current cameras and sensors under the transformation to ‘digital roads’.

Smart motorway speeders

Data obtained by The Times in 2018 showed the number of people fined on roads with variable speed limits, with the amount rising tenfold in five years:

Four cameras on the M1 alone caught 8,382 speeding drivers in 2017.

Highways England says that smart motorways have brought benefits. It has analysed data since the first stretch opened – on the M42 in 2006. It says that journey reliability improved by 22 per cent and that accidents have reduced. It also says that where accidents did occur, their severity was lower.

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