the day the money runs out

road maintenanceThere’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.



  1. Complete mis-management from 2015/16. When there was no overall control, and the Council had adopted then “Committee” system which the Lib Dem’s claimed would result in better decision making. And this is what you get. At the time it was a Tory run Council, the roads improved. Bring in the Committee system and the roads decline, and the council is “in a muddle”. That’s putting it mildly! I wouldn’t let the Lib Dem’s run a whelk stall.


  2. So, David and John what do you suggest?. I agree the roads around Cambridge are poor and getting worse. As a cyclist i find it particularly painful and reporting potholes via the council’s web app generates no response.
    The explanation for the drop in spending is sad and hopefully all those concerned are ashamed of their use of public money. But what now? Do you (or anyone else in any party) have any solutions? Can you better prioritise the money you do have to spend?
    A great example of poor planning was last month Butt Lane was closed for one week between Milton and Impington. In that week a small patch of road was resurfaced but all the other potholes along the road were ignored. Surely with the road closed it would make sense to patch up as many reported issues as possible even if there is no money to fully resurface the road. I would like to see the reasoning and cost analysis of that decision.


    • Here’s an update. I reviewed my analysis with the Council’s CFO who confirmed my conclusions. There are three options: council tax but then it’s competing with adult social care etc, another loan, and ‘hope something good happens’.

      I’ll be taking a motion to next CCC meeting asking that we do a proper analysis of need, make the case for increased spend, find the money and then ‘do it properly this time’.

      What you need to do is to improve underlying road conditions so that they cost less to repair. It’s the same as the argument for public health spend which I made last year.


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