THE condition of Swansea’s roads has remained “roughly static” in recent years despite a maintenance backlog which now exceeds £70 million, a senior highways officer said.
Bob Fenwick said rising costs of materials contributed to the “massive backlog” but that he could make inroads into it with expenditure of £7 million to £8 million per year.
Addressing councillors on a scrutiny panel, Mr Fenwick, the council’s highways maintenance leader, said: “Is the budget enough? No. But can we manage the network with what we’ve got? Yes. And am I being supported financially? I believe so.”
He said the highways department carried out a bumper £9 million of road maintenance in 2020-21 and around £5 million per year in 2021-22 and 2022-23.
Mr Fenwick said the Welsh Government had not provided a road maintenance grant for the current financial year, which he suspected was due to its preparations for the new 20mph speed limit on residential roads. But he added that the council had provided extra cash.
Mr Fenwick said he had “never seen anything like” the damage caused to roads as that during last winter. He explained that “marginal temperatures” experienced in Swansea were particular prevalent, with a constant flux of temperatures of between -1C and 1C resulting in a cycle of freeze and thaw. Longer spells of cold weather, he said, would do less damage.
He said a section of Mumbles Road went from having no problems to losing its top level in just one week.
“We had to salt the roads about 40 times which is the most we’ve ever done,” he said.
Mr Fenwick added that the council was trying out new resurfacing materials which might prove less susceptible to damage but which might create potential for tyre grip issues for drivers.
Swansea has around 6,000 roads and streets, covering 1,100km. The council assesses the network every five years, and Mr Fenwick said around 2,000 roads and streets needed some maintenance work. There is also an annual Welsh Government survey of road surface friction and ride quality in the county.
The council carries out routine repairs, such as filling potholes and resurfacing small areas, and planned maintenance and structural repairs.
Mr Fenwick said planned maintenance work had scaled back a little in recent months in order to focus on the winter damage, which last week included resurfacing the scoured section of Mumbles Road at Blackpill. He said roads in Llansamlet also suffered a lot during the freeze-thaw cycle.
Preventative work was more cost-effective in the long run, said Mr Fenwick, and that if he was given the choice he would carry out preventative work on Fabian Way straight away – not because it was in a bad condition but because it would be far less expensive than waiting for it to deteriorate.
Planned road maintenance is prioritised via a scoring system which includes their classification as A,B or C roads, their use, accident statistics and proximity to schools and hospitals.
The council introduced a dedicated pothole repair scheme in 2018, which has resulted in 30,000 potholes being filled. Questioned by Cllr Peter Black about how effective the method of pothole-filling was, Mr Fenwick said the council had tested eight or nine different materials and that the one they’d chosen was “really, really durable”.
The pothole scheme’s success has led to high public expectations, and Mr Fenwick said “a very discontented” member of the public had reported around 160 potholes on Fendrod Way, Swansea Enterprise Park, in just one weekend.
Cllr Matthew Jones the state of the roads was a “hot topic” for residents, not just in Swansea, and that the council’s repair and maintenance teams deserved credit for what they did.
The Welsh Government published data on the percentage of roads in a poor condition up to 2018-19. In that year 4.1% of Swansea’s A roads were in a poor condition, 5.1% of its B roads and 6.9% of its C roads. The council said this had reduced to 2.7%, 2.9% and 4.9% in 2022-23, although the terminology now is roads “in need of attention” rather than poor condition.
During his presentation, Mr Fenwick also said that the new default 20mph limit could reduce road damage because there would be fewer speed humps and other traffic calming measures, which require drivers to break and then accelerate afterwards, than currently.
Councillors asked if they could be sent a list of the roads earmarked for planned maintenance, how the Welsh Government allocated funding to local authorities, whether heavier electric cars could cause more wear and tear than pretrol and diesel ones, and how utilities such as Welsh Water liaised with the council when they dug up roads.
Mr Fenwick said it might be possible to circulate the road maintenance list although it changed frequently, that population levels in a council area influenced Welsh Government funding allocations, and that it was a case of “wait and see” with electric cars.
He said the big issue with utilities and external contractors was when they didn’t advertise who they were while carrying out roadworks.
Stuart Davies, the council’s head of highways, said the council inspected work done by utilities and could get problems rectified at their expense.
Mr Fenwick said instances of not knowing in advance of external contractor work were frustrating. He recalled one occasion when the road outside his house was dug up three days after the council had resurfaced it. “I went ballistic,” he said.