The Good, Bad & Ugly State of Welsh Roads

(Title Image: Antony Maybury via National Assembly of Wales)

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
The State of Roads in Wales (pdf)
Published: 24th October 2018

“One of the sobering aspects of this inquiry has been how many of the issues raised in previous studies remain difficult. There is an overwhelming consensus that long-term funding for local government and trunk road agencies would lead to improvements – but we remain stuck in an annual cycle.”
– Committee Chair, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery)

1. Welsh roads are generally in no worse condition than the rest of the UK, but….

Trunk roads (which are managed by the Welsh Government) are generally in better condition than all other roads (which are managed by councils); 4.9% of the trunk road network was in poor condition in 2016-17 compared to 10.9% of local roads.

While some witnesses expressed concern about the deterioration in road standards (particularly areas that have been re-patched), the University of Leeds found that Welsh roads were in no worse condition than the rest of the UK. However, the harsh winters of 2016-17 and 2017-18 have resulted in a noticeable deterioration, with more money spent on short-term fixes than long-term road maintenance.

The four Welsh police forces argued that this “patching/reactive” approach to road maintenance adds to delays.

2. Councils need additional money to maintain key road assets as they are

Cllr. Andrew Morgan – RCT Leader and WLGA spokesperson for transport – said councils were doing as well as they possibly can but “there was significant room for improvement”. There was praise for the Local Government Borrowing Initiative, while the Welsh Government provided an additional £30million towards local road maintenance in February 2018.

However, Swansea Council alone said their repairs backlog was £54million and it was said Welsh councils spend 40% less on highways than English councils.

There were a number of calls for more long-term thinking on road budgets. Transport for Wales funding is decided on a five-year basis, but road maintenance is often decided yearly. Some witnesses described a “Mad March” phenomenon at the end of every financial year where there is a glut of projects which “decrease value for money from contractors and increases disruption for road users”.

The Committee recommended that highways authority budgets be decided on a five-year basis in the same manner as Transport for Wales.

3. The Mutual Investment Model should only be used for £200m+ projects

The Mutual Investment Model (MIM) is an alternative to PFI where a private sector partner builds and maintains a new piece of public infrastructure which transfers to public ownership when the contract expires; the government pays the private partner a fee with a number of terms and conditions attached (i.e. profit caps, job creation, procurement). The final section of A465 dualling between Dowlais Top and Hirwaun is due to be built under MIM.

Capital Law argued that to get the best value of money, MIM should only be used on projects costing £200-300million with a greater cost certainty.

The Committee broadly agreed and recommended that the £200million+ figure be used as the threshold to use MIM – and only when other funding forms are unavailable – alongside gradually improving procurement expertise, which requires the recruitment and retention of people with the right skills.

4. Better modelling is needed to justify new road projects

There was more to do to embed the principles of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 into highways policy – the obvious example at present being the proposed M4 Newport bypass.

The interpretation of the Act has “wildly differed” during the public inquiry process – the anti-Bypass interpretation by the Future Generations Commissioner being supported by the likes of Sustrans and the Welsh Government’s interpretation supported by the CBI.

The CBI produced a paper linking new roadbuilding to economic growth, but the paper referred to developing countries and might not apply to Wales and the UK.

There was an argument from the Campaign for Better Transport that new road building should be the option of last resort except when connecting new settlements, with fixing existing roads, shifting people to alternative forms of transport and a commitment to “greener roads” being prioritised.

While there was no suggestion traffic modelling was “wrong”, there was an acceptance that they needed to better reflect greener forms of transport and the long-term decline in the number of car journeys, learner drivers and distances travelled by road.

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