Our highways vary from public rights of way through woodland and fields to our county council-maintained roads, pavements and bridges, to our strategic road network of trunk roads and motorways maintained by other Government bodies. It’s important that these are maintained for leisure, access to work and services and movement of goods.
Following a decade of austerity and now the black hole of inflationary costs swallowing up any extra funding, the highways across Wales and the UK have been rapidly deteriorating year after year. In Wales, there is a backlog of £1 billion for the strategic road network, plus, according to the 2020 County Surveyors’ Society Wales survey, there’s an estimated backlog of highway assets — that’s roads, pavements and bridges — maintained by local authorities of more than £1.6 billion.
Renewal in Times of Climate Change
In addition to constant use and ageing, our assets are under growing pressure from the effects of climate change. The monsoon-like rain washes away road surfaces, freezing temperatures lift and blow surfaces causing potholes, we get sunken gullies, and if the old drains are not big enough, they soon fill with debris and they have to be constantly emptied to be effective.
Floods cause landslides and subsidence to major infrastructure and collapsed bridges. Cuts in council revenue funding under austerity mean that ditches and gullies are not as regularly maintained as they used to be, so water creates its own way, going along roads, creating trenches and flooding.
I read that the Welsh Government have re-engaged Matthew Lugg OBE and his team to assist with the major asset renewal programme. But the engagement of commissioners has to be accompanied by funding to deliver for our communities. If we are to be more selective in building new roads, then that money needs to be reinvested into our transport networks.
This is, of course, about public transport, but that includes roads being well maintained for public transport. An example of a major asset renewal is the Britannia bridge, and now the A494 Dee bridge, which is desperate — it was in such a deteriorated state 10 years ago that we thought it would have to be closed to one lane. Some remedial work took place to prolong its life, but it needs desperately doing now. I am advised that the scheme is progressing well and should proceed to construction in 2024–25, should funding be secured.
I urge the Welsh Government to ensure that funding is in place to complete this work, either from this Welsh Government, or the UK Government, as they now have control of the major EU replacement funds, which were previously used for infrastructure, such as the latest work on the A55, where £20 million of EU funding was used for that. Also the UK Government can borrow, unlike the Welsh Government, which is restricted. I am also aware that capital funds have been cut in real terms from the UK Treasury.
I read with interest the Welsh Government’s response to the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee budget paper, and welcome that the Government accepted recommendations to work with local authorities to assess the backlog of local highway maintenance and develop a plan to address it. However, I do maintain my position that, to build and maintain a decent transport network, there will need to be specific hypothecated highway resilience funding to improve the existing network, otherwise, it will get swallowed up with match funding for other Welsh Government schemes, as funding is so stretched. I am also aware that leaders have asked for less ring-fenced money, but highway resilience is core.
Now, significant Welsh Government funding of £500 million over three years has been given to the strategic road network, not just for highway maintenance and resilience, but also to deal with ash dieback — which is an issue for local government as well, and they’ve been struggling with it and don’t have any funding to deal with that — community safety programmes, broadband fibre along the network and street-lighting renewal.
The response to recommendation 15 of the report says that funding has been aligned with the sustainable transport hierarchy, as set out in the Wales transport strategy, which prioritises investment such as walking and cycling, and public transport such as bus and rail above investment in steps that increase private car usage. This approach is fundamental to achieve our challenging modal shift targets and climate change commitments.
A Long-Term Vision
But we need a long-term vision under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 to ensure that all local authority-maintained public rights of way, roads, pavements and bridges receive fair funding and investment, as they maintain the biggest and most widespread asset for walking, cycling and public transport. Active travel funding has been trebled for designated cycle routes over recent years, which tend to be around urban areas, but what about the majority of cyclists and walkers that use our public highways? Cyclists are at a greater risk from potholes than drivers, and roads must be made as safe as possible for all users. Pavements and rural lanes have not had any funding for years as they are low down the hierarchy when funding has been restrained for so long.
Regarding not having ring-fenced funding, from my experience as cabinet member for Streetscene, I know how competitive it is within local authorities, lobbying for a limited capital budget to be spent in much-needed areas, especially if it is to be adding value to match funding of Welsh Government grants for social housing, sustainable community schools, care provision, early years and childcare provision. I had to fight hard to get any funding for highways.
Because funding is tight, with councillors and residents fighting for their roads to be done, each road is assessed and scored via a formula, calculating priority, making sure that a fair and transparent process is followed, based on criteria and not favour. Often, a list of the chosen few roads has to go through the political process and there is a check that utility companies are not intending to do any work soon that will damage the new surface. These contracts then go out to tender and contractors bid for the work, which is then to be overseen.
So, now funding is so tight, I am sure that political leaders would like to see the return of the ring-fenced £20 million grant that recently ended. It’s not a lot to ask for, comparatively, when looking at the size of the network and the £1.6 billion-plus backlog; it would be a start.
I believe it would be a positive step if a portion of the active travel funding were to be made flexible and could be made available for highway programmes beyond designated cycle routes. These would be roads that are also well used by cyclists and pedestrians alike.
Currently, active travel funding is underspent because delivering designated cycle routes is very time consuming and difficult. The applications can be 30 pages. It takes officers away from delivering the schemes, which in themselves are time consuming and often controversial. Schemes have to be part of the integrated network map — lots of public consultation, plans have to be drawn up, traffic regulation orders, advertisements, objections have to be responded to, and it is extremely competitive. Transport for Wales delivering them won’t help, as they will have the same barriers and little local knowledge. Applications should be made more simple for active travel applications.
The Welsh Government said, in order to address the £1 billion backlog of capital maintenance across all asset types on the strategic road network, officials will seek to develop a major asset renewal programme, which can then be delivered over a five to 10-year period, with timescales adjusted to match to availability of funding. Surely, it would be better to include local authority maintained highways at the same time. They have written and asked that Welsh Government work with them on a programme, like they have previously done.
I care about nature and climate change; I don’t particularly want to see new roads. But, as a cyclist, walker and community representative, I care about people’s health and safety that comes with the maintenance of existing highways, be it roads, pavements or public rights of way. The North Wales region I represent is very different to Cardiff and the metro areas.
Regarding the nature emergency, I ask that all highway engineering programmes have due regard for biodiversity. Highway officers need to carefully consider the ecological impact before putting new cycle routes in meadow-rich verges, or laying nutrient-rich earth and reseeding grass and monocultures.
Wildflowers like poor earth, so leave it bare; plant trees, seed diverse-rich verges, talk to the ecologists and experts, and remember the Welsh Government and local partnerships programme to enhance amenity grass and verges for biodiversity, titled “It’s For Them ”.
- This article was originally written for and published by Welsh Fabians: https://medium.com/@fabcymru/highways-c030b6874346