Below is the text of the speech made by Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP for Nottingham South, in the House of Commons on 4 July 2019.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the 10th report of the Transport Committee, “Local roads funding and maintenance: filling the gap”, which we published on Monday. The successful preparation of all our reports depends on the hard work of the Committee’s Clerks and staff, the diligence of the Members who make up our Committee—I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) in the Chamber—and the generosity of our witnesses, who give up their time to prepare for and take part in our sessions.
I particularly thank Paula Claytonsmith, Lynne Stinson, Lynne Wait and Anne Shaw for ensuring that we heard expert female voices in a male-dominated sector. I am sorry that the Roads Minister, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), cannot be here today, but he has conveyed his sincere apologies, and I am sure he will pay close attention to Hansard tomorrow.
There is a plague of potholes blighting our local roads and pavements. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that successive Governments and councils across the land have failed to tackle. The consequences of this failure are all around us—we see them every day. I want to talk about the impacts of poor road and pavement conditions, why Government and local authority actions to date have been ineffectual and our report’s recommendations for tackling the problem.
On my journey to work, here in Westminster and out and about in my constituency, I see many examples of cracked and crumbling roads. Just today, a constituent emailed me about Green Lane in Clifton. Last week, Westminster City Council filled a pothole just around the corner from the Department for Transport that I had ridden into on my way home—I confess that it caused me to use some very unparliamentary language.
Our witnesses told us about the serious impacts that potholes have on the lives of pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and other road users. For example, poor pavements can strand older, frail and vulnerable people in their homes. Living Streets has found that nearly a third of adults over 65 felt reluctant to leave the house on foot due to the volume of cracks and uneven surfaces on surrounding streets, and almost two thirds of older people were worried about the state of street surfaces. Nearly half said that well-maintained pavements would make them more likely to go for a walk. Poorly maintained roads create real risks for vulnerable road users. DFT data shows that the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured due to defective road surfaces more than tripled between 2005 and 2017.
Local authorities must compensate motorists for damage to vehicles resulting from poor road conditions, and the cost of doing so has risen dramatically in recent years. Kwik Fit has estimated that the damage caused to vehicles from potholes in 2017 cost £915 million to repair, an increase of more than a third on the repair bill in 2016. Based on its share of Britain’s car insurance market, the AA has estimated that 3,500 claims had been made for pothole damage in 2017. The cost of this compensation ultimately falls on taxpayers, and it diverts money away from funding vital public services.
One of the most frustrating things about poor road conditions—this came through very clearly in our evidence—is the lack of any consistent reporting tool that drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users can use to report problem potholes. Some councils have their own online tools, and there are nationwide sites such as FixMyStreet, but there is a lack of transparency around the whole reporting process, little clarity about what will be done and no guarantee that people will get a reply. Mark Morrell—“Mr Pothole”—for years a doughty campaigner against the pothole scourge, made a powerful case to us to fix this.
Why, year after year, do these problems persist? Why have successive Governments and local councils not done anything about them? In truth, they have tried, but their efforts have been inconsistent, and as a result the outcomes have been sub-optimal. They are constrained by three key things: funding, information and collaboration.
The key issue is funding. For decades, councils have complained that they do not have the funding to undertake a preventive—and, ultimately, cheaper and more effective—approach to maintaining their local roads and pavements. Successive Governments have responded to this by providing short-term, stop-start capital pots, such as the pothole action fund. Any extra funding is of course welcome, but the wrong funding in the wrong place at the wrong time means that councils simply mitigate the most obvious damage. It does not encourage the more effective, proactive maintenance that is the key to the long-term renewal of our local roads, as we heard from council after council.
The second issue is that councils sometimes do not have a full picture of the state of their road networks. If they do not know what they are dealing with, how can they plan and price maintenance properly? This lack of knowledge can be improved by innovating in data collection methods. There has been good work in this area in recent years, and there is a real desire on the part of Government and industry to work together to find solutions.
We heard about a similar willingness to innovate in the third area—good practice and collaboration. There is a real opportunity for initiatives such as the use of recycled plastic, self-repairing technology, graphene and even drones to bring down the cost of road repairs. We heard about the innovation and good practice going on across the country, but it was not always easy for this to be shared beyond individual councils and regions.
Our report makes a series of detailed recommendations to the Government to tackle these problems, and I want to highlight four of them. First and foremost, funding: there is not enough of it, and what there is is not allocated efficiently or effectively. Local government revenue funding has fallen by about 25% since 2010. The allocation within it for local roads is not ring-fenced, and it is often used by councils to plug gaps in other budgets. Capital funding, through the pothole action fund and other pots, is sporadic and time-limited.
To tackle this problem we recommend a front-loaded, long-term funding settlement for local councils in England. The DFT should champion it, and the Treasury should seriously consider it as part of the forthcoming spending review. This would enable local authorities to address the historical road maintenance backlog and plan confidently for the future. The settlement should not only include capital pots managed by the DFT, but roll up into a five-year settlement the revenue support elements of roads funding administered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This critical funding reform must not be an excuse for a budget cut.
Secondly, innovation is essential if the efficiency and effectiveness of local road maintenance is to continue to improve, which it must in the face of limited funding. It is right that the Government stimulate and encourage innovation, but the value for money of any investment is properly repaid only when new technologies, ideas and ways of working are scaled up and made available to all. In the light of this, we have recommended that the DFT work across government to collate all innovation funding for local roads in one place, establish as far as possible common rules for bidding and properly assess the benefits of innovation initiatives.
Thirdly, local authorities will be able to make better use of available funds for road maintenance only if they can target such funding well, and this requires good data. The DFT needs to be clear about whether the data it receives from local authorities on road conditions is consistent and allows valid comparisons to be made. It needs to be clear what it does with such data, how it is analysed and what action is taken on the back of the conclusions it draws. The DFT should also make it easier for the public to report road condition concerns and access local authority road condition data. We recommend that it does this by running an innovation competition to develop a platform the public can use to make online reports about road conditions directly to their council and to access real-time local road condition data.
Fourthly, making the best use of the available funding requires the sharing and adoption of good practice in road maintenance. This is a key role for central Government. The DFT should commit to monitoring and reviewing the current approach and reporting within two years on its effects and impacts. Local councils and industry are developing good practice in highway survey and maintenance. However, from the evidence we have received, it is not always clear that this is being widely shared. Regional highway alliances should be sharing good practice and benchmarking it against one another. The DFT could do more to facilitate this—for example, by providing a virtual good practice toolkit and repository, so that councils across England can find examples of good practice.
In conclusion, local roads are the arteries of prosperous and vibrant villages, towns and cities. They are critical to the movement of goods, as well as helping people to get around. The consequences of a deteriorating local road network are significant. It undermines local economic performance and results in direct costs to taxpayers. The safety of other road users is seriously compromised. This plague of potholes is a major headache for everyone. It is time for the Government to be bold, to take up our recommendations and to give councils the funding and the wider system of support that they need if they are to deliver for our constituents the roads and pavements they deserve.