There’s a worrying trend in the condition of our roads. We all see the potholes and we generally think there are more this year than there were last year. But they are the tip of the iceberg which is a recent year on year decline in their underlying state as measured by an objective and rigorous annual survey.
Match this to a reducing spend on road maintenance and you’d be forgiven for worrying.
We, that is the County Council, are in this pickle because of a decision made 5 years or so ago compounded what’s happened since.
It all started with a scrutiny committee recommendation back in the days of what was then a Tory run council. The Economy & Environment scrutiny committee chaired by Lib Dem Graham Wilson recommended that the Council take out a loan to invest in upgrading our roads to such an extent that ongoing maintenance costs would be reduced thereby enabling the loan to be repaid. This happened at the same time as a Government initiative encouraging transport authorities to take an ‘asset management approach’ to road maintenance. The Council’s Cabinet therefore applied for and secured £90 million. Sadly no business case was developed.
In order for this loan to be used for road maintenance this was now moved from the Council’s revenue account to its capital account and at the same time any existing revenue spend on road maintenance was reduced which of course made setting the council tax easier.
The original plan was to use the loan over 5 years and substantial disbursements were made in 2012/13, 2013/14 and 2014/15. This was initially reflected in significant improvements in the state of the roads as measured in the annual survey in the first two years. However in 2015/16 it was decided to spread the loan over 10 years and the annual spend was reduced by some 60%. The state of the roads has now deteriorated year on year. Not by a lot but steadily.
We’re now 6 years in and the annual spend is down to £4.3 million with a final £3.1 million spend in 2021/22. After that there is no more money, there’s a £90 million loan to repay and I reckon that our roads will be worse then they were when this program started. Much worse.
I’ve got a problem with this. Apart from the obvious of how do we get out of this mess there’s the issue of ‘we are supposed to be one of the economic engines of the country; surely the least we can do is to maintain our infrastructure’. If I was a visitor with money to invest I’m not sure I’d be impressed.