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Highways Agency: Maintaining England’s Motorways and Trunk Roads

In recent years the Highways Agency has improved the condition of England’s motorway and trunk roads network and has also strengthened the management and delivery of its maintenance programme. But, according to a National Audit Office report, there is scope for the Agency to make further improvements in measuring the condition of the network, targeting resources on the highest priority work, controlling costs and ensuring that maintenance work stands the test of time. It should also measure its own performance better.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, told Parliament today that the Highways Agency had strengthened its management and delivery of the road maintenance programme by making funding decisions more closely based on need. It has also improved how it contracts for work and has reduced the impact of maintenance on the motorist, in particular by carrying out more work at night and at off-peak times of the day. It has also met its national target of ensuring that no more than 7 to 8 per cent of the network requires maintenance in any year.

Further progress could be made, however, in key aspects of the Agency’s work.

The Agency’s performance varies between regions with 5.2 per cent of roads in the South West requiring maintenance in the next twelve months, compared with 9.1 per cent of roads in the North West.

Proposals for major capital maintenance schemes put forward by the Agency’s contractors often lack sufficient detail to enable schemes to be ranked according to the future maintenance cost savings and the safety benefits they would bring. The Agency therefore does not necessarily select the highest priority projects for maintenance work within its regions or across the country as a whole.

Cost control over the lifetime of projects is weak. The Agency concentrates on controlling in-year spending, while projects over-spend by an average of 27 per cent over their lifetimes.

The Agency also loses around £6.2 million each year when, for example, fences or barriers on the network are damaged in road accidents. The Agency does not recover all the costs of repairing the damage because, for example, no culprit can be identified or traced.

Contractors’ work is not guaranteed to last a given time and the Agency does not know whether it stands the test of time. Maintenance work is expected to be free of defects for only a limited time after its completion, and the Agency’s maintenance histories for the network as a whole are not sufficient to allow it to assess how well maintenance performs over the longer-term.

"The Highways Agency has done much to improve the condition of England’s motorways and trunk roads over recent years, and its management of continuing maintenance work, particularly in reducing the impact on road users. However, the Agency could do more to prioritise its resources to projects delivering the best outcome in terms of safety and value for money, and to manage costs effectively over a project’s lifetime.

"The disruption to key parts of the road network caused by the adverse weather conditions at the end of January 2003 shows just how important effective maintenance procedures are. The Agency is investigating the causes of the difficulties faced by many drivers at that time, and plans to review its winter maintenance procedures to prevent a recurrence."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors

  1. The Highways Agency was created in 1994 to take over functions previously held by the Department of Transport to manage, maintain and improve the network. The network consists of most of the motorways in England, together with the most important A-roads. In 2001-02, the route length was around 9,500 kilometres, and is the largest single government asset, currently valued at over £60 billion. The Agency directly manages almost all of the network – 600 kilometres are managed by contractors under design, build, finance and operate contracts. The Agency spent over £56,000 per kilometre on maintaining the roads that it directly manages, in 2001-02. The network is expected to reduce to 6,500 kilometres by 2005-06 as a result of planned transfer of some A-roads to local authority control.
  2. Road maintenance includes major capital repairs, such as resurfacing, and routine work carried out throughout the year, such as drain cleaning, grass verge cutting and dealing with damage to the network caused by accidents, as well as the salting of roads in winter.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 17/03