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Keeping up appearances

The UK government's new roads policy amounts to filling in pot-holes.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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The UK transport ministry has hinted that it is in favour of improved maintenance of road infrastructure (1). More money from the beleaguered government coffers, we are told, will find its way into improving the pitiful state of Britain’s roads. And about time too.

The recent Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey into the condition of the network found that while there has been a seven percent increase in funding for structural maintenance, local authorities still reported a £1.1billion shortfall in what they said was needed to maintain roads adequately. Furthermore, the average frequency of resurfacing roads in Britain, excluding the capital, is once every 77 years. The 1926 General Strike was just starting when some roads were last maintained.

London’s streets were last upgraded in 1969, when a groovy Tony Blair would have been swinging to the sounds of ‘Give Peace a Chance’. If that’s not bad enough, parts of Scotland were last resurfaced with a new-fangled material called ‘tarmacadam’ – 104 years ago, just as the Boer War was getting started.

While things seem to be improving lately, the Office for National Statistics’ survey into road maintenance still concluded that 20 percent of principal roads have structural faults that require immediate and close monitoring, and five percent of motorways appear to have a shelf-life of just four more years (3).

So is Alistair Darling’s Damascene conversion to the cause of good highways a positive thing then? Well, no, not really. Even though we seem to be living in an age when everyone is concerned about the social dangers of driving it might seem that this is, in the words of tabloid journalists, yet another roads U-turn. However, for all the condemnation of road-building, you’d have to be remarkably miserablist to be against ‘maintenance’. Maintenance is an easy option – a consensual position that both sides of the debate can be happy with.

A transport minister announcing that he is in favour of more maintenance is simply giving a political gloss to a necessary fact of life. What would be the alternative ministerial policy? Advocating that the national roads infrastructure, such as it is, be allowed to crumble? Darling’s announcement is the equivalent to an education secretary saying that s/he is in favour of schools having books. It is strange that the transport minister sees fit to suggest that repairs are a central plank of transport policy, rather than simply being an essential activity.

Ultimately, there is something easy about the argument for road maintenance. But what the demand for maintenance doesn’t confront, and effectively runs away from, is the commonly accepted principle that building more roads would be a problem.

Maintenance is uncontroversial, but asking for ‘more’ is difficult. Unfortunately, I think that we need to engage with the difficult arguments. Unless we are bold enough to state that more roads are necessary; unless we can begin to reclaim the notion that personal mobility on a bigger road network is a progressive vision, then we will end up making do with the existing inadequate system. It will be a well-maintained inadequate system, but….

As it happens, an inability to confront the need for more roads will actually end up making it harder to justify the maintenance programme. After all, if more roads are seen as a bad thing, how can we coherently argue for the increased resources even to maintain our national roads infrastructure? In this debate, as in many issues of transport policy, we need to be a little bit bolder.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1)Transport minister announces £3.6 million government funding to help target potholes on local roads

(2) Asphalt Industry Alliance, Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey 2003, April 2003

(3) National Road Maintenance Condition Survey: 2002, Department for Transport, Transport Statistics Bulletin

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Topics Politics

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