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Will too much localism lead to a return to “foundrous highways”?

The Coalition Government’s “localism agenda” sounds like democracy in action: local decisions being made by local people. But, for roads other than motorways, it could spell disaster, with a steady decline in spending on non-strategic highways, which are the great bulk of roads in Great Britain (for every one mile of motorway, there are 95 miles of roads conceived originally for non-motorised traffic). We could see a return to the bad old days when local stewardship of roads allowed most to rot, when there were “wicked ways” and “foundrous highways.”

The National Audit Office has today warned the Coalition Government that highway decentralisation could involve “risks”.

The spending watchdog said cuts in highway funding would lead to more potholes:

“…funding available for other areas of local government spend, including routine highways maintenance, is likely to fall…cuts risk deterioration in highway quality and higher long-term costs for the [Department for Transport] or local authorities. The Audit Commission also reported in 2011 that there was a significant but unquantifiable backlog of maintenance work needed to get local highways to a sustainable level.”

Today’s report went on: “Against the background of reduced and sometimes uncertain central government funding, the local authorities that we spoke to said that they are having to prioritise and reduce their expenditure on transport. Reduced overall funding for local authorities risks worsening highway quality.”

Non-strategic roads are paid for out of both national and local coffers. If the Department for Transport gives more and more powers to local authorities (but less cash) the conditions of many roads, some already in a deplorable state, will likely get worse.

Largely local administration of roads would be a reversal of 110 years of national stewardship. In 1903, the Roads Improvements Association – an organisation created in 1886 by two cycling bodies – successfully lobbied the Government of the day to, in effect, nationalise the roads of Great Britain. Prior to this, roads were the responsibility of hundreds of local authorities, with an appalling disparity in quality of road upkeep from parish to parish, region to region.

Even strategically important roads – roads now taken care of by the Highways Agency – could be poorly maintained in places. The creation of a central highway authority was brought about thanks to the dogged insistence of a cycling official, Williams Rees Jeffreys.

Rees Jeffreys is known today as an arch motorist, one of the first people to advocate for motorways, but he had started his 50 year career in the improvement of what he called “despaired and neglected roads” as a cyclist. In 1900 he was elected a member of the Council of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and by 1901 was CTC’s representative on the Council of the Roads Improvement Association. The body had been founded by the CTC and the National Cyclists’ Union, forerunner to today’s British Cycling Federation. Motoring organisations later joined the RIA but the organisation’s central goal – nationalisation of the roads – had been mooted first in an article in the CTC Gazette in 1900. It was Rees Jeffreys who wrote this article. He had argued that the Roads Improvement Association should focus on political lobbying: he wanted the RIA to push for a “a Central Highway Authority and a State grant for highway purposes.” By the end of 1901 Rees Jeffreys was the secretary of the RIA. In 1902 he bought a motorbike and became a member of the Automobile Club. He never lost his love of cycling or forgot that it was the CTC which pushed for better roads, long before motorists did the same.

In a 1949 autobiographical polemic he wrote: “Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads.”

The champagne socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb also recognised that cyclists played a pivotal role in highway history. In 1913, they wrote:

“What the bicyclist did for roads, between 1888 and 1900, was to rehabilitate through traffic, and accustom us all to the idea of our highways being used by other than local residents. It was the bicyclist who brought the road once more into popular use for pleasure riding; who made people away both of the charm of the English Highway and of the extraordinary local differences in the standards of road maintenance and who caused us to realise that the administration, even of local byways, was not a matter that concerned each locality only, but one which the whole nation had an abiding interest.”

Cyclists – especially Rees Jeffreys – pressed Government on the need for road reform. In the 1940s, British Prime Minister Lloyd George said William Rees Jeffreys was “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world.” Rees Jeffreys became the first secretary of the Roads Board, founded in 1910. This was the first central authority for roads in Great Britain since the Romans. The Roads Board later became part of the newly-formed Ministry of Transport, which has now become the Department for Transport.

The Roads Board was created six years after a departmental committee of MPs looked into the then existing system of highway administration. The first witness called in front of this committee was, of course, Rees Jeffreys and the MPs acknowledged it was he – and the Roads Improvement Association – which had pushed for the formation of the committee.

The Departmental Committee on Highways started hearing evidence on 2nd April 1903.

Rees Jeffreys told the committee: “a certain sum should be allocated and placed in the hands of the central department for the purpose of building new roads and improving existing ones, and that, as these improvements will be required mainly for national purposes in the national interests, we think it but fair that the State should contribute fairly liberally towards them.”

This wish was granted, something an editorial in an automobile journal could hardly believe:

“A national system of road control! How many of us have dreamed of it – dreamed of it as something nigh impossible of realisation? And yet the report of the Departmental Committee of the Local Government Board…opens up an alluring possibility of something being done to nationalise our roads…”

If our current Government presses on with their localism agenda – and perhaps even allows some roads to pass into private ownership – the hard work and vision of Rees Jeffreys and others could be undone.

Today’s motorists know none of this highway history and would no doubt be shocked at how a roads organisation created by cyclists was so influential at the time. But the reforms which led to so many improvements in the nation’s roads are now being undone, and if motorists think today’s potholes are bad, tomorrow’s could be an awful lot worse.

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