County council areas like Lancashire are being outspent on road repairs by more urban local authorities that have far fewer miles of road in need of maintenance.
The claim comes from the County Councils Network (CCN), which says London’s boroughs were able to spend three times more than so-called ‘shire counties’ on maintaining their roads and investing in upgrades last year. The capital’s councils shelled out £62,350 for every mile of road under their control, compared to £20,885 in county areas.
But the Post has learned that Lancashire County Council spent marginally more on its roads during 2019/20 than the average for other county authorities – at £24,186 per mile. The figures include capital investment in constructing entirely new routes like the Penwortham bypass.
The CCN claims that lower funding for county areas and disproportionate regional investment has made places such as Lancashire the “poor relations” when it comes to highways spending.
The organisation’s research shows that nine percent of the road network belonging to England’s 36 county councils was in need of repair last year – a total of 11,117 miles.
While the percentage of repairs required in London was similar – eight percent of the capital’s network – the total mileage needing attention was over 15 times lower, at just 730 miles.
The man responsible for Lancashire’s roads is not hugely surprised by the disparity – but says that he would be “grateful for any extra funding” that could come the county’s way.
“London is the capital city and it’s a totally different situation – in Lancashire we have a lot more country roads and a very diverse network,” said Lancashire County Council’s Conservative cabinet member for highways, Keith Iddon.
“We get a government grant [for highways] and we have topped that up ourselves – this administration has put in an extra £15m.
“We have also improved by 12 percent in the latest survey of public satisfaction with repairs to potholes and damaged roads – making us one of the most improved counties in the country.
“I’d like a bigger settlement, but as things stand, it’s the hard work of our highways staff which has without doubt made our improving position possible,” County Cllr Iddon added.
The government has promised a £2bn pothole repair fund over the next four years and the CCN is calling for counties to receive the same proportion of the cash as they did of a previous one-off grant in 2018 – when they were treated more favourably than other council areas, getting a 74 percent share.
Lancashire County Council is assessed by the Department for Transport as being one of the most efficient local authorities for its use of previous allocations of road repair cash – entitling it to the maximum share from its Highways Incentive Fund, with County Hall set to be handed £3.8m in the next financial year.
But County Cllr Iddon accepts that public perception does not always match that official status, acknowledging that motorists were “critical” of the authority’s performance in the last but one survey of opinion, before this year’s improved ranking.
The Labour opposition group on the county council is also unhappy with the authority’s record on the roads.
“This is a Conservative county council and a Conservative government - together, they are under-investing in Lancashire’s roads and don’t we all know it,” said the party’s transport spokesperson and Preston South West member Gillian Oliver.
Meanwhile, County Hall’s sole Green Party representative said the focus of transport investment needed to be diverted into providing Lancashire with a “first-class alternative to car travel.
“With the climate crisis and the absolute need to to reduce transport-related carbon emissions, we need a level playing field for investment in buses and the rail network, as well as cycling and walking infrastructure,” County Cllr Gina Dowding said.
“Lancashire residents deserve [public transport] which is convenient, efficient and reasonably priced. At the moment, we are paying far more than London for a lower quality public transport system.”
The Liberal Democrat group at County Hall was unavailable for comment.
Counties were outspent on their roads investment by all other types of local authority last year - although the difference was slightly less marked than with London’s boroughs. England’s 36 urban metropolitan councils in England spent £41,929 per mile on their roads last year, while the eight ‘core cities’ - including Manchester and Liverpool - were able to invest £57,241 per mile.
The North West as a whole - across both county and city areas - spent £33,770 per mile, the third highest amount in the country.
COUNTIES CALL FOR THEIR “FAIR SHARE” OF ROADS CASH
The County Councils Network (CCN) says that its figures - calculated by combining council revenue spending on day-to-day roads upkeep with capital investment in junction remodelling and new routes - show that shire areas such as Lancashire have been left lagging behind the rest of the country.
CCN chair David Williams said: "County motorists are clearly the poor relation to drivers in London and other cities areas when it comes to how much gets spent on fixing potholes and improving the local road network, with drivers across the country facing a pothole lottery, even within regions.
“Due to more generous day-to-day funding and infrastructure investment, cities and urban areas are in a position to spend disproportionate amounts in keeping their roads maintained or upgraded compared to councils in counties. This is despite far more of our road network in the shires requiring repairs and improvements.
“The government’s £2bn pothole fund and commitment to level up infrastructure are therefore extremely welcome. These findings show that it is imperative our areas receive a fair share of the government’s new fund, in proportion to the number of miles we are responsible for, while ensuring the longer-term commitment to level up funding for national infrastructure doesn’t bypass county areas that stretch across the length and breadth of England and are the vital arteries for those ‘left-behind’ towns."
Drivers are more than one and a half times more likely to break down because of pothole damage than they were more than a decade ago.
The figures have been published by the RAC to mark National Pothole Day.
The motoring organisation has been tracking the real-world effects of poorly-repaired roads since 2006.
The number of pothole-related call-outs to the RAC actually dropped by more than a quarter during 2019 to 9,200 - a fall which has been attributed to the inflated levels seen a year earlier following the “Beast from the East” blizzards.
But the proportion of pothole-blamed breakdowns attended by its patrols during the last quarter of 2019 had risen by 0.1 percent on the previous year - to stand at 0.9 percent. Damage included distorted wheels, broken suspension and damaged shock absorbers.
The organisation's ‘pothole index’ puts the likelihood of breaking down because of a badly-repaired road at 1.7 times higher today than it was 12 years ago. But that is down from a peak of three and a half times more likely during 2010.
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “We need central government to think differently about how councils are funded to maintain the roads under their control. Short-term commitments of cash, while welcome, are not enough on their own – councils need the security of long-term funding so they can plan proper preventative road maintenance.
“From this year, the money raised from vehicle excise duty in England will be ring-fenced to help fund motorways and major A-roads over successive five-year periods. But as yet, there is no similar model for local roads where the vast majority of drivers begin and end their journeys. We believe this could easily be changed by ring-fencing 2p a litre from existing fuel duty revenue to generate £4.7bn of additional funding over five years.
“Pothole-free roads shouldn’t be a ‘nice to have’ in 2020, drivers should surely be able to expect the vast majority of roads they drive on to be of a good standard, especially given they pay around £40bn in motoring-related tax every year.”
‘DON’T FORGET THE RURAL ROUTES’
Classic car repairer Gary Winfield was transporting a vehicle along the A588 in Cockerham last summer when the specialist trailer he was using hit a sunken drain cover. He says that the bill to put it right came to almost £1,000 - but he was unsuccessful in claiming compensation from Lancashire County Council
Gary believes his experience shows that main roads in outlying areas need just as much attention as more urban routes.
“The A588 probably has a more diverse volume of traffic than passes through any town or city centre. It’s used by container trucks, farm vehicles, buses and even horses - it’s a main thoroughfare.
“But I just don’t think the money is being spent where it’s needed - and it’s needed out here.”
4,300 miles - length of non-motorway road network in Lancashire County Council area (excludes Blackpool and Blackburn)
£57.9m - day-to-day revenue spending on highways and transport by Lancashire County Council (2019/20)
£46.6m - capital spending on highways by Lancashire County Council (2019/20)