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Finance system fosters inefficient highways work, say auditors

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Government rules are forcing councils to repair roads during winter months when work is more costly to perform and less effective, Parliament’s spending watchdog has said.

The National Audit Office said uncertainty over revenue funding available each year for highways maintenance also made it hard for councils to plan sensibly.

Its report Maintaining Strategic Infrastructure: Roads said the government agreed final totals each spring, which meant councils could design schemes only in the summer and carry out the work between September and March.

“This means that most maintenance is done in the autumn and winter, which is less efficient because materials can be more difficult to handle in cold and wet conditions and daylight hours are shorter,” the auditors said.

Tight budgets also meant highway authorities now did less routine maintenance, for example a lack of gully clearance causing potentially costly long-term damage by allowing water to seep into roads’ substructure.

Ministers had announced additional funding for road repairs 10 times since 2010, meaning councils all needed to seek additional capacity from the market at the same time “which makes it less likely that they will get value for money”, the NAO said.

Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge (Lab) said the 10 announcements “clearly showed that the Department for Transport has no long-term funding plan to make sure the road network runs properly”.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “Stop/start funding makes long-term planning more difficult for highways authorities.

“The Department for Transport should work with the Treasury and the Department for Communities & Local Government to address the unpredictability of funding for both the strategic and local road networks.” 

Former Leicestershire CC highways director Matthew Lugg, now director of public services at consulting engineer Mouchel, agreed.

He said: “Long-term financial certainty is essential instead of this drip feed that we get. We are storing up a backlog of repairs that will come back to bite us. The financial model for maintaining local roads is finished but nobody is talking about alternatives and the PFI route is no longer available.”

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