Not long ago I was writing a short story about the slow motion decay of civilisation, it focused on the fact
that this year’s storms became the norm and that the damage caused became un-repairable. Not enough
resources so only the most important areas were repaired and protected, the rest were left to fail.
I mentioned the steady loss of roads, the damage they suffered as flood water covered them and broke
them apart and the lack of money or people to fix them.
Unfortunately prophetic as it turns out.
With the floods now gone and the clear up ongoing the extent of damage to our roads is becoming
clear. As a result of reviewing the damage the Asphalt Industry Alliance has released a disturbing report.
Motoring groups, county and city councils, the Local Government Association and the government itself are
all aware of the problem and are concerned.
An estimated £12 Billion to repair the existing damage, an increase from last year’s £10.5 Billion as existing
damage goes un-repaired and gets worse along with new damage caused by the winter rains and floods.
Up to 12 years to fully repair all existing damage, 14 years if you live in London. This is existing damage only;
it does not take into account new damage this year or from storm and flood damage if next year is as bad
as January and February 2014.
The AA have reported that nearly 40% of roads are now reported to be in a “Terrible” condition in at least
one area, last year the figure was 29%.
The extra £200 million the chancellor allocated to road repairs will not even cover the increase in damage from
last year. The Transport Secretary also announced £183.5 million of emergency funding to help with road repairs
following ‘the wettest winter on record but both of these payments together are a fraction of the money
needed just to repair the damage this year and do not touch the outstanding damage.
There are not enough staff to repair the existing damage and what they do repair is done quickly and all
too often badly. How often do we see a pot hole filled and then reappear within a year as the tarmac cracks
and crumbles and washes away along with the filling beneath.
Very few repair crews have the time to do a lasting repair and that is part of the problem. These short term
repairs take time and money and are nothing more than a temporary fix and the potholes go back on the
repair list the following year.
So why is this continuing to happen and get worse?
Our roads are still made in much the same way that they were in the 1950s when the substantial expansion
of our road network began.
There are more cars on our roads, some 30 million now against roughly 20 million then. But it is the Lorries that
are the biggest factor, or perhaps I should say the heaviest. As anyone who drives on A roads and motorways
will know as they find themselves hitting or getting stuck in the ruts left by heavy lorries as they crush the
tarmac and under fill layers into tram lines.
Road and roadside maintenance is far more expensive and therefore done far less often. Keeping drains and
grills free of debris allows water to flow off the roads quickly, blocked drains leave puddles that sink through
every crack and cause long term damage.
In the countryside the drainage ditches are seldom cleared out giving water nowhere to run off creating the
Repairs are rushed, not done to the standard’s set for the roads themselves and so they last a year at most.
Minor roads are left while repair crews are directed to the main roads, this means drivers start to avoid the
truly bad roads and increases traffic on the main roads meaning they suffer more wear and tear and
therefore require more repairs.
Over several decades the shift in bulk cargo transport from rail to road has added more and more lorries
and more and more weight to the roads which were often build for much lower volumes of traffic and lower
Cutbacks in public transport leaves people outside of the core urban areas doing more driving themselves
increasing the number of trips made per car.
A change in the types of cars on the roads. Although we have the environmentally driven opposition to
big cars there is no shortage of people carriers and Urban SUVs or four by fours in every town and city.
The cultural change and the fear mongering over the years about child safety now means that all but the
shortest walks to school are done by car. Anyone who lives near a school will be familiar with the clogged
streets and the traffic jams caused by parents, school holidays around me are positively clear of traffic and
jams compared to the daily school runs.
Estimates of road usage since 1980 have doubled, not because the number of vehicles have doubled but
because cars and lorries make multiple trips each day.
I wrote that year by year roads were given up, repairs concentrated on the main roads and lesser roads left
to fail until they became no more than dirt tracks of became disused.
In the towns and cities every road leads to housing estates or shops or businesses but in the countryside
where the majority of the roads are to be found there are hundreds of thousands of miles of roads that are
barely used apart from farmers or a handful of locals.
The sort of roads that need four by fours or tractors to use today.
The sort of roads that are ignored, left un-repaired until they can no longer be used.
Then when no one uses them they are forgotten and the areas they once led to are abandoned.
This year an extra £383 million was found for road repairs, the outstanding bill increased by £1.5 Billion. If next
year has anything even close to the storms and floods of this year and I suspect it will then the existing damage
will probably increase by another £2 Billion or so. This means the outstanding damage is increasing faster than
it can be repaired by a huge margin. This year it is 12 years to repair everything, next year it could be 13 or 14
years. What will it be by 2020?
We are looking at a situation where our road structures are getting worse at a faster rate than we can repair
it and the next step is to start essentially abandoning roads if that is not already being done.
Our councils will be looking at traffic levels and writing off the least used. Pragmatic, necessary, unfortunate
if you happen to use those roads.
What has been done, I wonder, to look at our roads and the way they are built and used. If the way be build
roads is unsustainable and the numbers suggest that is the case what can we do. What changes must we
make to build longer lasting roads better able to withstand both traffic and the environment?
Unless such a study is done, unless the way we build and use our roads is looked at from a critical and
analytical point of view this situation is going to get worse and worse.
We are a few years away from needing off road vehicles to use our country roads but when we reach that
point the towns and cities will not be far behind. When car manufacturers begin to build and sell cars able
to survive on Britain’s roads you will know we are getting close to something from a science fiction short
Changing how we build and use our roads now, while we have time, is far better than waiting until huge
sections of our roads are no longer usable before anyone acknowledges there is a problem.
Sadly ignoring the problem till it is too late is normal for our politicians.