HL Deb 19 January 1999 vol 596 cc467-70

2.45 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any assessment has been made of the overall cost of outstanding road maintenance work throughout the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, it is generally accepted that road maintenance has suffered from past underfunding. However, there is no agreed estimate of the size of the backlog. For trunk roads in England, we have provided some extra £350 million over the next three years. There are also increases for Scottish and Welsh trunk roads. That allows adequate resources to tackle progressively outstanding maintenance on motorways and trunk roads throughout Great Britain. Local government in Great Britain has substantial discretion in setting expenditure priorities and full information on local highway condition is not available. But we are now committed to restore the cuts in maintenance of English principal roads under the control of local authorities.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that reputable non-governmental bodies have calculated on information obtained from local authorities that the backlog is in the region of £5 billion and is rising? Does he further appreciate that a crisis is developing with regard to local roads? That was recognised by the Select Committee on Transport in 1997 when it called for a 10-year plan to remove the backlog. Can the Minister say what effective action the Government will now be taking? Does he not agree that roads are the arteries of the nation and that we neglect them at our peril?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree that they are one of the arteries of the nation. There are other modes of transport as well and we have an integrated approach to transport under this Government. The estimates by the Institution of Civil Engineers and by the LGA by various different means give us the figure of £5 billion to which my noble friend referred. The Government would have some problem in agreeing to that figure, but we would accept that there is a substantial backlog which reflects the decline in maintenance provided by the previous government since the early 1990s. The figures I have indicated show that we are beginning to reverse that decline both on trunk roads and local authority roads.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, have the Government carried out an assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the construction of new roads on the one hand versus the cost of maintenance of existing roads on the other, bearing in mind that the construction of new roads will reduce the need for maintenance on existing roads?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are somewhat wider issues involved here. The Government have made it clear that we will engage in the construction of new roads only as a last resort measure. We believe in shifting resources to improve the flow of traffic on our existing roads. We have shifted substantial resources into the maintenance of our trunk roads in particular, in part to tackle this backlog.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, bearing in mind that the vast majority of roads are local authority roads, what guarantee is there that local authorities will spend on road maintenance what is allocated to them under the standard spending assessment? What figures do the Government keep to ensure that local authorities spend the money that is allocated to them for the purpose?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is true that under the standard spending assessment, as has been the case for a number of years, local authorities have some discretion. However, we have established that current road maintenance should be a priority within local transport plans under the much tougher system of local transport planning that we are introducing. In addition, central government will be providing support for capital projects: an increase of over 40 per cent. in terms of major road maintenance works and 28 per cent. in relation to bridges for local authorities.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the noble Lord referred rather coyly to an integrated transport system. Many people have been talking about such a system for many years. Will he say what he means by it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I was not coy at all. I was absolutely blatant. We do believe in an integrated transport policy. The White Paper that we published last year, the legislation that we shall introduce, for example, in relation to London, and the provisions that we shall bring to bear on the railways are all part of an integrated approach which covers all modes, not simply roads. Road building will not resolve our transport problems in this country.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, may I draw the Minister's attention to the recent report by the World Bank, which seems to indicate that we are spending only half the recommended amount on road maintenance? Is that not a serious cause for concern?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not entirely conversant with what the World Bank is saying. Clearly, different formulae apply to different kinds of roads. We are developing new maintenance techniques and are providing substantial additional resources for maintenance in all road sectors, in both national and local authorities. We are beginning to tackle a serious problem.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, where roads are re-surfaced, the new surface frequently breaks down after only a few weeks? What steps are the Government taking to make certain that roads are maintained to a higher standard, so that in the long run they are cheaper to maintain?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are taking two steps. It is clear that some of the new materials have not performed as well as was anticipated. However, many of the new techniques have substantially improved the driving conditions on roads and the maintenance standards. We are also examining a "whole life" maintenance approach rather than waiting until there is a serious problem before taking action. That will form part of the approach of both the Highways Agency and local authorities.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the main street in Clandon was beautifully repaired, and that for the first time in 40 years it was like driving down a billiard table? Within three weeks of the repair, men appeared with pneumatic drills and they dug a hole in the surface to put in new services. Will the Government give an undertaking that, the moment a road is repaired, someone else does not come and dig it up again so that we have to start all over again?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, regrettably, at this stage of our integrated approach I can give no immediate commitment to that effect. Local authorities and the Highways Agency need to co-ordinate matters with the utilities rather better than has been the case in the past. We will draw their attention to that point.