Roads and pathways form a part of every single journey we make every day. It is the public service that is used most frequently and used by everyone. Remarkably, successive Governments have failed to invest sufficient funds to adequately maintain the network. Like the railways, the problems of under-investment are coming home to roost. One-third of all funding is spent on temporary patch and mend maintenance. Tens of millions of pounds are spent every year in compensation to people injured as a result.
To its credit, this Government has set out to eliminate the backlog of road maintenance by 2011. It has already provided extra funding to the Highways Agency to maintain its network properly. The extra funding provided since the start of the Ten Year Plan in 2001 has enabled the Department to halt the deterioration in local road surface condition. However, the current programme concentrates on the quality of the road surface. If the funding is to deliver more than a 'makeover', the Government must widen its policy to ensure that the roads are safe, well lit and long lasting. For their part, local authorities must improve their performance if the most is to be made of the extra money. The roads budget must not be used as a regular slush fund for other local services.
The ability of local authorities to tackle the maintenance backlog is further hampered by the enormous volume of road works carried out by private utility companies. Some roads seem to be made up more of patches than original road. There is insufficient co-ordination and co-operation between utilities and local authorities. The Government is developing new legislation to give local authorities more powers to co-ordinate these works and minimise delays. Whilst there is strong evidence that local authorities need some strengthening of their existing powers, the current legislation has been poorly implemented. This is entirely different to the legislation not working at all. We recommend that the Government makes the existing system work before bringing in any new systems.
The Government has also proposed the introduction of "Traffic Managers", so called "congestion czars", who would be responsible for 'keeping traffic moving'. The idea is to bring together all of the other elements that can combine to cause delays in a city including road maintenance, traffic signal control, accidents and parking. The potential complexity of such a role is staggering. We are not sure where the expertise exists to manage all of these and the Government has yet to demonstrate the practical benefits that would be achieved by combining all of these roles. The task of managing our city streets risks being made more complicated by adding a further layer of bureaucracy. The idea of tasking someone with the job of keeping traffic moving may sound politically appealing but it runs the risk of compromising safety and environmental objectives and ignoring the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and indeed, the needs of utility customers - every driver also falls into at least one of these categories.