Highway authorities should repair roads on a planned basis, not when the public or councillors raise concerns.
That is the message from an Audit Commission report on highway maintenance, which called on all councils to develop asset management plans for their road networks.
England’s 152 highway authorities are responsible for 379,805 kms of local roads - used by 30m vehicles every day, on which they spent £2.3bn in 2009/10.
The report Going the Distance argues that pressures from financial cuts and public opinion are driving councils into a ‘worst first’ approach to repairs, instead of looking at the whole life cost of roads and planning their maintenance accordingly.
It said using an asset management plan could minimise whole-life cost and give better value for money.
But it found councils were often sceptical of this approach, seeing roads as liabilities since they could neither be sold nor generate income.
“The key to improving value for money of road maintenance is knowing and understanding when and how to intervene,” the report said.
Leaving roads to deteriorate too far before repairs “will always cost substantially more to refurbish”, it noted.
It cited one unnamed council that estimated it cost £370,000 per kilometre to repair a failed road but only £100,000 for repairs as part of a preventative maintenance strategy.
Commission chairman, Michael O’Higgins said: “Prevention is better than cure, but councils have to consider the safety and insurance risks of damaged surfaces.
“Roads costs are rising while councils’ belts are tightening. Improvement in A roads seems to have stalled, and the road network overall is starting to deteriorate.”
The commission also criticised a lack of collaborative purchasing in highways maintenance.
It found the Midlands Highway Alliance - comprising 13 councils and the Highways Agency – had delivered £12.9m in savings through shared procurement
Mr O’Higgins said: “Sadly we found collaboration between councils to be rare, with too few councils procuring in cost-saving partnerships.”