Road Maintenance — An inquiry by the Transport Sub-Committee
A Response by The Association of British Drivers


Terms of reference

To consider:

a) The current state of repair of motorways and trunk roads and of local authority principal roads.
b) The steps taken by the Government, Highways Agency and Local Authorities to ensure that such roads are kept in good repair.
c) What further steps should be taken to bring the roads in this country up to the best possible standard?

The current situation, where to start

The UK has a population of just over 59.5 million with a GDP of £ 860 billion, it has a land area of approx. 242,000 sq. km's. The total length of paved roads is approx. 372,000 km of which 3,300 is motorway.
To put this into context the Netherlands has a population of approx. 15.9 million with a GDP of £ 243 billion, a land area of 34,000 sq. km's and a length of paved roads of 113,000 km of which 2200 km is motorway.
This means that the Netherlands has a population density nearly twice that of the UK with 2.3 times as many kilometres of motorway per head of population, this with a comparable GDP per head.

How the UK & Netherlands compare
Population  59.5M
GDP £860b
Land area 242,000 sq km
34,000 sq km
Roads 372,000km
Motorway 3300km


There are several figures given for the shortfall in funds which have been made available for expenditure on carriageway, foot-way, bridge and street lighting maintenance but one given by the British Road Federation and supported by the Institution of Civil Engineers was £5 billion to the end of 1999. Government figures estimate that this will reach £7 billion over the next 10 years. Current proposals for funding over the next 5 years is just over £4.2 billion with 2001/2002 proposed at just over £1 billion.
Clearly if these proposals are fulfilled the UK will at last be giving the necessary attention to what is an essential part of its infrastructure.

We have suffered many years of neglect to our road system and it is going to need a long-term solution, there is no quick fix. Our roads are amongst the worst maintained in the EU and if we are to play our full part in Europe and we want our economy to continue to strengthen it is essential that we move forward with this programme as soon as possible.

Condition assessments are underway and recommendations from the DETR such as 'Best Value Road Condition Surveys for Local Highway Authorities', have been issued. One problem area is non-motorway bridges there are some 52,000 bridges of which some 30, 000 have to be tested for compliance with the revised EU axle loading. Without these results it is going to be difficult to determine costs of repair and /or alternative routes for HGV's.

It is not easy to prioritise but areas that need serious consideration are those that are, or will shortly be causing danger to drivers/riders. There are many recorded 'black spots', which can be significantly improved by re-engineering, better controls, even just road signing improvements. Many sections of road have deteriorated to such an extent that repair is not an option and replacement is the only way. Once the sub-base of a road (its foundation) is open to the elements there is an accelerating deterioration of that section which will soon spread to adjacent sections.

Methods, design and specification

The design of a road is primarily dependent on the number of loaded axles that will pass over it in a given life span. The UK's standard axle has been 10.5t based on a minimum of 5 axles and a gross weight of 38t. Since January 1999 the EU directive, which allows an 11.5 t axle and a gross weight of 40t, has come into force.
Road wear is approximately proportional to the weight of an axle raised to its 4th power. This means that an 11.5t axle causes about 45% more wear than a 10.5t axle.

The Design Manual for Roads issued by the Dept. of Transport still talks about standard axles by which they mean 10.5t. It is interesting to note that by comparison the wear factor for a private car is negligible.
It is a well known fact that many trucks coming over from the continent are over-loaded and it is likely that the 11.5t axle loading is often exceeded.

The principle specification document used for repair and maintenance of roads is called 'Specification for the Reinstatement of Openings in Highways' issued by the HAUC (Highway Authorities & Utilities Committee) and approved by the DOT this is not highly regarded by local authority engineers and in the words of one recently 'you can drive a coach and horses through it'. This document does need upgrading to ensure that road repairs are carried out to a much higher standard than at present giving longer life and better value for money for the taxpayer.

Another area where significant improvements can be made is in the area of pre-planning and co-ordination .How many holes in the road are dug up by one utility and repaired for it to be dug up 3 or 4 months later by another. A 5-year plan registered with the responsible local authority by all the utilities including those controlled by the authority should be implemented. A licence to dig up the road would then be issued on a co-ordinated basis (by the local authority's engineering dept.). A higher level of quality control is also essential both during the works and on completion again by the local authority engineers or their agents.
The cost of this should be built into the pricing structure of the contractor's bid. A system that is used in the building industry is that a Principal Contractor is appointed to co-ordinate and control the activities of the other specialist sub-contractors, in this case these would be the various utilities.

Sections of road where a higher degree of wear and tear occurs is at stop lights and tight bends. The former because with HGV's stopped the vibration from a heavy axle repeated many times over many years can result in the plastic depression of the sub-grade and soil beneath, resulting in rutting and subsequent cracking of the surface with consequential ingress of water and weakening of the road structure. Some consideration could be given to strengthening these zones when they are built or subsequently repaired.
Severe bends generally mean that the surface is subjected to greater horizontal stresses due to the centrifugal forces applied by the tyres of vehicles as they traverse the bend. This leads to a higher degree of wear primarily to the surface layers and therefore more rapid deterioration of the road structure below. A higher specification for the surfacing to give greater tensile strength in these areas would prolong the life of the road and reduce maintenance costs at the same time as improving safety.
Another area where short term cost savings could result in greater long term maintenance costs is that following a government ruling local authorities no longer have to grit roads. This is not only dangerous but there is a view that by allowing the ice to form on the roads, the damage to roads will accelerate particularly where there is already some breaking down of the road surface. Water expands when it turns into ice and where fissures exist, breaking up of the road surface will occur during this process.

The use of lane rentals is another way of getting efficiency into the works and providing quality control is maintained, is beneficial to all concerned. An immense source of annoyance and frustration to drivers are road works where nothing seems to be happening and that seem to go on for ages. Proper signage and helpful and accurate information is essential here. Planned monitoring and recording of road conditions are essential factors in the maintenance of the road system and local authorities have to be given the funding to do this. Very often the Highways Authorities will de-trunk a road which then falls to the local authority with insufficient funds to maintain it, and without full knowledge of its condition.

Looking to the future

One of the problems with our road system is that many of them are not designed for the sort of traffic that they are subjected to. Too many HGV's have to drive through narrow town and village streets, which means that these roads (and the surrounding houses) become structurally damaged far earlier than they would with normal light traffic. There have been many schemes to by-pass those most vulnerable but a combination of environmental protesters, economic considerations, planning constraints and plain anti-road antagonists have prevented many of these from going ahead. We should re-think this and take a leaf from France's book and get on and get it done. We would benefit tremendously as a country as the cost of repairs and maintenance to these types of roads would be significantly reduced and the efficiency of long-haul goods delivery be improved dramatically.

Relatively speaking we have a very low motorway mileage compared with our EU neighbours. Many of our motorways are operating at over twice their design capacity, which by definition will result in shorter life spans and shorter intervals between maintenance operations. This cannot make long-term economic sense.

Another area of concern is the growing shortage of skills; the Association of Consulting Engineers is only one of many national organisations that have warned of the lack of graduates coming into the engineering professions and particularly the civil engineering profession. There has been a 50% reduction in engineering graduates since 1994. These graduates go on to be the planners, designers, supervisors, directors of the works and many other positions of importance within the construction industry, employed by local authorities, government departments, highway agencies, consulting engineers and contractors. We have to find a way of stemming this flow away from the industry of its most skilled people. This has to start at primary schools and some recognition of this is currently underway with the activities of the CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) and its subsidiaries such as the NCCG (National Construction Careers Group). More has to be done, and the government can play a big part in this, to attract young people into a career as an engineer by a greater recognition of their contribution to society.


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