Belfast Telegraph

£1.2bn hole in budget needs filled to bring roads up to standard, audit report reveals

More than £1bn is needed to upgrade Northern Ireland's road network to an acceptable standard, a report warns today
More than £1bn is needed to upgrade Northern Ireland's road network to an acceptable standard, a report warns today
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

More than £1bn is needed to upgrade Northern Ireland's road network to an acceptable standard, a report warns today.

Spending has been running at around £50m per year less than what is required, auditors said. This underfunding has increased the overall backlog of necessary maintenance expenditure to £1.2bn.

Minor roads in rural areas are worst affected and continue to deteriorate.

Business leaders warned that a poor roads system could harm our ability to attract investment.

The findings are set out in a report published today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

It notes that around £4m a year is being spent on personal injury claims as a result of the substandard road network. And £240,000 is being spent dealing with claims of damage.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "It is clear from this report that short term, inadequate funding of road maintenance expenditure is causing the serious deterioration of a key public asset. The securing of a long term funding option needs to be a priority."

The Department for Infrastructure has responsibility for Northern Ireland's road network.

Today's report notes that significant operational savings have been made, particularly in day to day structural maintenance.

However, these have been outweighed by long-term financial pressures.

The report states: "Whilst the condition of roads making up the trunk road network is still relatively good, the other roads making up the local road network continue to deteriorate at a faster rate, as less money is made available to maintain them to the same standard."

It adds: "Whilst the overall level of funding has improved, it is still less than required to maintain network condition in a satisfactory, steady state.

"As a result, the department's estimated amount of investment required to clear the overall structural maintenance backlog has increased from £168m (at today's value) in 1998 to £1.2bn."

The report highlights how the department relies heavily on late in year funding for structural maintenance, reducing its ability to plan this work properly.

"Over time, these funding pressures have constrained spending on good, value for money preventative maintenance, contributing to a higher proportion of expenditure on reactive maintenance, which does not always provide value for money," it adds.

"More recently, funding pressures have led to lower priority defects being no longer recorded or repaired, allowing further damage to occur and accelerating the rate of network deterioration. This is likely to lead to higher costs in the future, which could have been avoided."

The department is obliged to repair any road defects likely to pose a risk to public safety.

Defects that are undetected or not repaired increase the risk of damage to a vehicle or injury to people, and can result in legal claims.

The report states the total cost, including compensation and legal bills, of claims resulting from vehicles damage averaged £240,000 over the past five years.

The costs in relation to personal injuries average at nearly £4m a year over the same period.

In 2015/16 personal injury claims accounted for about 8% of structural maintenance.

In 2017/18, 3,934 vehicle damage claims were received.

The report adds: "The department expects another significant peak in the number of successful vehicle damage claims in 2018/19."

Angela McGowan, the director of CBI Northern Ireland, said there was a strong link between good infrastructure, higher productivity and economic growth.

"Failure to maintain roads adequately today will present us with a much higher cost of maintenance in the future and also negatively impact the region's ability to attract inward investment," she said.

"For the business community, poor road maintenance translates into increased risk of accidents, greater wear and tear of vehicles and increased journey times for workers, as well as deliveries of supplies and end-product."

Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart said that the report should act as "a wake-up call".

"There needs to be a general acceptance that spending on infrastructure investment and maintenance help the wider economy and there has to be the political will to make good on previous pledges," he said.

Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan said he was concerned that rural roads were deteriorating at a faster rate.

"As an elected representative in a rural constituency I regularly lobby to have potholes repaired and road conditions improved," he said.

The Department for Infrastructure said it welcomed the Audit Office's findings.

It said: "The report recognises that for many years the funding for road maintenance has been below the level required to maintain the structural integrity of the road network and with some 26,000 kilometre of roads, 286,000 street lights, 5,900 bridges and 14,000 traffic signals to maintain, the report identifies the need for planned, timely, targeted intervention.

"Working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Finance, the department will now consider the five recommendations outlined and what measures can be put in place to address the issues raised, making a formal response in line with accompanying guidance to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018."

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