Why National Pothole Day matters in the age of Covid-19

Why National Pothole Day matters in the age of Covid-19

This year’s National Pothole Day secured coverage across national print and broadcast media, putting a much-needed spotlight on the worsening pothole funding crisis. Paul Fleetham, Managing Director of Tarmac Contracting argues that even in the throes of Covid-19, National Pothole Day still matters.

As we all dig deep in lockdown 3.0, you may feel there are more things to worry about at the moment than potholes. I agree that a surging pandemic and too many people suffering does not compare.

But even in the throes of Covid-19, National Pothole Day still matters because the state of our local roads has national and local social and economic importance.

Well maintained local roads underpin our communities and economies, they represent 98 per cent of the network and are used in almost every journey. They help support improved social outcomes – allowing for faster and more reliable journeys, boosting local businesses and serving all road users. A good quality local road is also central to encouraging people to take greener forms of transport such as cycling and buses. Getting our roads up to a high standard is part of building back better.

As we make the case for more investment in local roads, here’s a few additional thoughts from me to consider at the start of 2021.

Investment in local roads is being made but long term certainty to plan is key

The Spending Review committed £1.125 billion of local roads maintenance funding in 2021-22, including £500 million for the Potholes Fund to fix potholes and resurface roads. This is welcome but it’s critical that these pledges are met with longer-term commitments and sustained periods of ring-fenced investment, as most of all local councils need certainty to plan and implement essential maintenance programmes. Only a complete asset management approach to our highways will deliver the improvements that are needed and ensure that the local road network is no longer treated as a second-class asset.

Devolution will give metro mayors powers and they must support local roads

For metro mayors it’s a case of when, and not if, infrastructure powers will be given to them. The National Infrastructure Strategy unveiled late last year is supportive of greater infrastructure powers for mayors, but their hands are tied until Government sets out expanded devolution arrangements in the English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper. When this happens there will be a good opportunity for metro mayors to invest in high quality local roads which support other infrastructure and development plans across city regions.

Investing in the local road asset delivers an economic return too

Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the undoubted challenges to communities and the economy, I’m a great believer that UK infrastructure delivery and particularly highways projects can support economic recovery. Investing in local roads provides an immediate economic stimulus to local economies – this is shovel ready work that is not waiting for planning red tape.

We need to always think about our roads in terms of social outcomes

Intelligent local authority clients assemble condition data but also look at this information in the context of assessing the social impact of failing roads across their network. We’ve previously worked with councils where they’ve made the case for more investment in the asset based on a matrix of social impacts. Ultimately they showed how a well-maintained network was essential to underpinning their wider goal of delivering better social outcomes for its citizens. Councils are facing an incredibly uncertain time but there’s scope to do more assessment like this to help build the investment case.

National Pothole Day in 2021 was very different to previous years and there are other issues that are greatly affecting our way of life. But the economic and social value of this asset that we all depend on should not be forgotten.

In support of National Pothole Day Tarmac has launched a new online guide to pothole repair. It includes details of award-winning asphalts such as Ultipatch Sitemix, winner of Highways Industry Product of the Year in 2018. It also includes repair materials designed specifically to cure and harden more quickly in wet conditions, making them ideal for the British weather.

Read Tarmac’s guide to pothole repairs

Paul Fleetham is managing director of Tarmac Contracting. Tarmac is newly confirmed as a Platinum sponsor at this year’s Highways UK taking place at the NEC Birmingham on 3-4 November.
Looking back and moving forward… ORR’s role as the Highways Monitor

Looking back and moving forward… ORR’s role as the Highways Monitor

Feras Alshaker, Deputy Director Roads, Office of Road and Rail, ponders how 2020 has impacted on its role as Highways Monitor and points to key performance criteria in RIS 2, including a particular focus on proposed efficiency gains

I took up my current role with ORR in January and there’s no doubt that 2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging in ways that I did not foresee. The coronavirus outbreak has impacted everyday life, how we work, and of course how our road network is used.

In April, the start of the second road funding period was overshadowed by the pandemic but as we transitioned from the first five-year road period to the second, it has, in some regards made identifying the impacts on monitoring Highways England’s delivery clearer and in turn how we hold them to account.

For example, our framework for holding Highways England to account is flexible, and we use this flexibility to take into account the extraordinary situation the company faces and focus activity in the most proportionate and efficient way possible.

Looking back

Highways England was set up in 2015 as a result of the UK government’s programme for roads reform, and the ORR took on its scrutiny role – as Highways Monitor. The reform brought an unprecedented level of investment planning and government’s promise of secure funding.

In July this year we published our assessment of Highways England’s performance and delivery of its investment plan. This looked back at how Highways England performed in Road Period 1, and what the whole roads reform process has achieved so far. 

We concluded that over the last five years Highways England made good progress and we have seen it meeting almost all of the targets it was set. It marked the end of the first road period and I am pleased that we have pushed Highways England hard to deliver on safety, efficiency and meeting the needs of road users. 

We, as Highways Monitor, played a vital role to improve the transparency and quality of Highways England’s financial reporting – with the company delivering £1.4bn efficiency savings over five years. We also pursued a backlog of structures inspections, as well as relentlessly monitoring Highways England’s work to improve road users’ experience following aspects of poor performance.

Our assessment also found that the company must continue to improve safety for all road users, further involve its customers in planning and decision making, and work even more efficiently over the second road period.

Moving forward

In August, the company published its strategic business plan and delivery plan for the second road period. In these documents, Highways England sets out how it is planning to deliver what government specified in RIS2 – the second road investment strategy covering 2020-25.

We have been involved at different stages in the RIS-setting process, primarily though our ‘Efficiency Review’ of an earlier version of Highways England’s plans, which we published earlier this year. 

The scope of our efficiency review was to assess the level of challenge and deliverability in the company’s draft plans, with a particular focus on proposed efficiency gains. Those plans had good supporting evidence in many areas and represented a real improvement on the plans produced for the first road period. 

It is encouraging that much has remained from earlier versions, including a strong focus on safely operating, maintaining and renewing the existing network. It is also good to see that the recommendations from our review, particularly the scope for Highways England to deliver £600m of additional cost reductions and efficiency savings, have been carried through into Highways England’s final strategic business plan and delivery plan for road period 2.

However, Highways England’s challenge is getting bigger, as it needs to deliver a larger programme of works as set out in the Government’s 2020 Road Investment Strategy, and we will continue to provide close scrutiny. At an appropriate point Highways England, the Department for Transport and ORR will need to jointly take stock of the package for both the remainder of the road period and beyond in light of the pandemic.