Maintaining Lichfield's Highways

Britain's road network is taking the strain, with 32 million vehicles on our roads and growing. Locally, we all know that there's more traffic about. Just how much, and how it's affecting roads around Lichfield was brought forcibly home when the County Council's Area Highways Manager, Clive Thompson spoke to members on 19th September. What some may have thought would be an unexciting subject, turned into a fascinating exploration of how our highway engineers struggle to maintain and improve our road network, whilst faced with reducing budgets and increasing traffic pressures.

First some facts to bring home the scale of the problem.There are 1,000 miles of roads under Clive's control in the Districts of East Staffs, Lichfield and Tamworth, of which 300 are in Lichfield. His annual budget is 14.7 millions. This may seem large, but when you carve out funds for rebuilding, repairs, maintaining grass verges, signage, etc, winter gritting and town centre improvements (underway in Uttoxeter and Burton, planned for Lichfield), that pot of money is under severe pressure. Add to that, the maintenance backlog across the County as a whole of 100 millions, of which a third is in Clive's area and you can see that there are real problems. In short, we are repairing and rebuilding roads slower than they are wearing out.

Upgrading roads in town centres by replacing granite chippings with granite setts is expensive. Major road reconstruction (as has recently occurred in St John's Street) costs 25 per square metre; laying granite setts costs 120 per square metre. Surface dressing, which helps extend the road's life costs 2 per square metre. It is clear then that highly expensive schemes in town centres need financial support from District Councils or contributions from developers as part of planning permissions for housing and other development. Whatever scheme is implemented, it has a forty year life, then we start all over again. So how do Clive's staff at their Trent Valley Road base assess scheme funding? Quite simply, it's down to safety, not aesthetics.

Clive's presentation covered all aspects of his staff's work. We learned that 42% of the highway network is salted in adverse weather. Each call out of gritters across the County costs 30,000; the long drawn out discussions with Network Rail to construct the Southern By-pass under the Lichfield Brownhills railway had been successfully concluded; verges are cut eight times a year, but enhanced in Lichfield by District funding to fourteen times; maintenance of parts of the A5 and A38 are likely to be handed back to the County from the Highways Agency in the (mistaken?) view that the traffic had diverted to the M6 Toll; and, finally, that the long drawn out debate on the siting of 'A' boards and other traders' paraphernalia in Lichfield City Centre was still under review.

This was an excellent evenings discussion on a topic that affects us all. We all left with a much better understanding of the problems facing the County Council in balancing the books against competing spending pressures.

Roger Hockney
September 2006