Could Surrey be on the road to becoming a pothole-free county?

Road contractors are offering 10-year ‘pothole-free’ guarantees

Almost 20,000 potholes disfigure the 3,000 miles of roads that crisscross Surrey. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Almost 20,000 potholes disfigure the 3,000 miles of roads that crisscross Surrey. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, May 3, 2013, 05:41

After three hard winters the roads in Surrey are feeling the strain. Almost 20,000 potholes disfigure the 3,000 miles of roads crisscrossing the county, which is often, if not always accurately, seen as London’s stockbroker belt.

Almost 25,000 repairs – one every five minutes – were carried out in the first three months of the year, while enough tarmac to fill eight Wembley pitches was poured in the past year to hold crumbling roads together.

Now, however, Surrey County Council has decided to move away from patchwork, opting instead to offer five-year contracts to road-repair companies in return for a 10-year “pothole-free” guarantee on any work done.

The plan also promises the unthinkable: that it will save money. It should, says Jason Russell, Surrey County Council’s assistant director for highways, come in 16 per cent cheaper than deals in the past, while maintaining the tight 2 per cent to 4 per cent profit margins that are the norm for contractors.

Such a combination of outcomes is rare, but it can be achieved, says Russell, because five-year contracts offer companies the chance to best use their own staff and equipment, while having the security to invest in new equipment.

Three-quarters of the savings will come from improved productivity, though the council has agreed that roads will be closed more often to let contractors finish work more quickly. “In other cases, contractors will be given the freedom to deal with parked cars, which are a real problem when you are trying to do this type of work. They won’t be able to impound them, but they will be able to move them.”

Three-hundred miles of road will be repaired properly over the period, Russell says. In some cases new foundations will be laid; in other cases new products such as Superflex will keep surfaces watertight and free of cracks.

New foundations, however, are the last option: “Most roads in the county have developed from tracks laid down centuries ago. Laying foundations is horrifically expensive. The cost to rebuild all of them in the county is estimated at £7 billion – unaffordable,” says Russell.

The succession of poor winters has made the problem worse, Russell says, since the number of potholes the council had to deal with doubled between last winter and the previous winter: “The combination of heavy rain and then prolonged cold was lethal.”

While Surrey has long since contracted road repairs to private companies, it has doubled the number of inspections its own staff carry out on roads in an effort to spot looming problems before they become critical.

The list of the first roads to be tackled will be published in June, but more than a year’s work has already gone into the plan to agree terms with contractors. “Contractors, naturally, want five-year contracts, because that gives them greater stability, but a five-year contract on which they lose money is worse than useless to them, while we wanted savings and quality guarantees.”

The Surrey model has already attracted the attention of mandarins in Whitehall, who are under pressure from ministers in the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition to find savings wherever they can.

Predictably enough, Surrey County Council’s view of the problem is not shared by everyone, since it believes 80 per cent of its roads are in a decent condition, while the rest – often in estates and less-travelled country roads – need work. However, local newspaper the Surrey Advertiser is unconvinced, arguing that figures from the UK department of transport two years ago warned that 17per cent, or more than 500 miles, of the county’s roads, were classed as “red”, or in “critical” condition. Because the five-year replacement target is below the 500 miles deemed unacceptable, the council will be running fast yet still falling further behind, while the situation could get worse if roads marked “amber” were to deteriorate quickly.

“Surrey has an appalling record over its stewardship of the county’s highways. Given the huge amount of money residents fork out to the council, they have a right to expect far better,” says Robert Oxley of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. “Repair work on roads needs to improve all that aren’t up to scratch, not just focus on a small number in an effort to improve misleading statistics.”

Oxley adds that Surrey’s council taxes have gone up by 72 per cent over the past decade.