Nearly a fifth of local authority roads are in such poor condition that they must be repaired – or even face closure – within five years, the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (Alarm) survey has found.
It said the cumulative effect of an ageing network, decades of underfunding, increased traffic and structural damage arising from severe winters had left some 17% of local roads with less than five years of life remaining.
Councils maintain all roads except for motorways and trunk roads, which are the responsibility of the government agency Highways England.
The survey, by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), estimated it would take 13 years to clear the backlog of repairs and cost £12bn to bring all council roads in England and Wales back to reasonable condition. The AIA added that local authorities faced a £730m funding shortfall this year for highways works.
AIA chair Alan Mackenzie said: “Local authority highway teams do not have enough resources to arrest the terminal decline in the condition of our local roads and the network is not resilient enough to meet the challenges ahead.
“Despite this, the efficiencies they have achieved in recent years through adopting an asset management approach should be applauded”.
This approach treats highways as an asset requiring planned maintenance rather than costly reactive repairs when problems occur.
Local Government Association transport spokesperson Judith Blake (Lab) said: “Councils are proving remarkably efficient in how they use this diminishing funding pot but they remain trapped in a frustrating cycle that will only ever leave them able to patch up our deteriorating roads.”
She pointed to a 2014 opinion poll in which the LGA found 83% of respondents would support part of fuel duty being earmarked for local roads by the Treasury.
But Matthew Lugg, vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation and former highways director at Leicestershire CC, was sceptical of some of the survey’s claims.
He said funds had increased for capital works, though revenue - day-to-day spending on repairs - “is still dire”.
Mr Lugg said: “Local authorities I talk to seem to be able to find money to put into highways, mainly from prudential borrowing, and I think that’s seen as politically a good thing to do because highways is very visible.
“There is a claim in the survey that one in six roads could have to be closed within five years but I think that would be politically impossible, and very possibly illegal.
“Councils put money into A and B roads so the main problem is rural roads and minor roads in towns.”
Geoff Allister chief executive of the Highways Term Maintenance Association, which speaks for repairs contractors, said: “There is a compelling commercial argument for investing early in highway maintenance to arrest the decline in the condition of the road network with case studies showing benefits to cost ratios in excess of 2:1.”
Parvis Khansari, chair of the engineering board of the Association of Directors of Economy, Environment, Planning and Transport (Adept), said: “Adept wants to move away from the national focus on repairing potholes and talk about maintaining roads at the appropriate standards to avoid potholes in the first place.
“However we will only get to that level if the previous backlog, built up over decades is resolved through a national programme of investment in local roads. Prevention is better and much cheaper than cure.”