Decades of penny-pinching in the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s road network means it would now cost £1.2 billion to bring it up to scratch, a new audit report has found.
The report, published today by the Northern Ireland Auditor General Kieran Donnelly, found that £50 million less than it takes to maintain the road network in a “steady and sustainable state” is being spent each year.
The report outlines how “decades of funding shortfalls are having a deteriorating effect on the overall condition of Northern Ireland’s road network”.
It notes: “The backlog is the estimated amount of money required to rectify all outstanding structural maintenance issues and bring the entire network into a fit for purpose state. In 1999, the estimated maintenance backlog was approximately £168 million.
“The department’s current estimation of the backlog is £1.2 billion.”
Mr 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.
“One of the surprising findings within the report is the absence of a roads maintenance strategy to demonstrate long-term development and maintenance requirements of the network.”
The report also outlines how, due to the lack of cash, roads maintenance has been focused mostly on motorways and the other important routes.
Known as the ‘trunk road network’, the audit report finds that these roads are in better condition than previously thought.
Meanwhile, the condition of the rest of the road network continues to get worse.
Mr Donnelly added: “I am also recommending some reconsideration of the way maintenance funding is allocated.
“While major roads such as motorways are in better condition than previously thought, minor roads, including much of the rural network, continue to deteriorate.”
The report also said the public purse isn’t getting value for money due to the “uncertain” way funding for road maintenance is allocated.
It looked at ‘structural maintenance’ – road resurfacing and surface dressing, as well as what it called “unplanned, reactive activities” such as patching up defects when they arise.
It found that the Department of Infrastructure relies heavily on ‘in-year funding allocations’ to carry out much of the work.
At Stormont this happens three times per year – in the June, October, and January monitoring rounds – when the overall budget is shuffled around and divided out where it’s most needed.
But, the auditors say, finding the extra cash this way rather than giving the department a larger, more fixed budget to begin with creates “uncertainty” which leads to more cash being spent on “reactive maintenance” such as patching up potholes, rather than “preventative maintenance” such as road resurfacing.
The auditors say the preventative maintenance provides better “value for money” in the long term.
“Over time, these funding pressures have constrained spending on good, value for money preventative maintenance,” the report states.
In a statement, the Department for Infrastructure welcomed the Audit Office report and said it was considering the recommendations outlined and what measures can be put in place to address the issues raised.