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7 June 2014 | Anna Scott
Unpredictable levels of funding from the Highways Agency for road maintenance could result in a loss of public value and cost more in the long term, according to the National Audit Office.
The actual reduction in budget for the Highways Agency will be 7 per cent, not the 19 per cent announced in the 2010 Spending Review. This is due to extra capital funding, according to the NAO report, Maintaining strategic infrastructure: roads.
Despite these funding pressures encouraging efficiency and innovation in how budgets for road maintenance are spent, the lack of predictability has practical implications, the NAO stated.
Local highway authorities report that they now carry out fewer routine activities, such as clearing gullies that prevent water seeping into road sub-structures. And because additional funding for emergency repairs is only available at the end of the financial year, almost all highways authorities need extra capacity from the market at the same time, making it less likely that they will get value for money.
Funding also needs to be spent within the financial year, which affects efficiency. Most maintenance is carried out between September and March, but during these months daylight hours are shorter and materials are more difficult to handle due to the cold and wet conditions.
Overall, road maintenance contractors cited unpredictable income as a disincentive to invest in improving efficiency.
Although recent data showed that the surface condition of the strategic road network improved between 2003 and 2013, it may be that deterioration has not yet become visible, the report states. Satisfaction with the general upkeep of the network fell by 2 per cent among road users between 2011-12 and 2012-13 to 91 per cent.
“Stop-start funding makes long-term planning more difficult for highway authorities,” said Amyas Morse head of the NAO.
“The Department for Transport understands the threat posed to road maintenance from the uncertainty of funding, but establishing a new government company to address the problems will not, in itself be enough. The Department should work with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government to address the unpredictability of both the strategic and local road networks.”
The government is planning to change the Highways Agency’s status to that of a limited company wholly publicly owned by the government, with six-year funding certainty for capital projects and maintenance, and therefore the potential to achieve better value for money. In total £4 billion was spent on maintaining England’s roads in 2012-2013.