Britain's bridges deteriorating at alarming rate

weak bridge

The number of substandard road bridges in Britain has risen 35% to 3,203 in just two years, an investigation by the RAC Foundation has found. The backlog of work required to bring this total back to a good condition is £890m – a figure which rises to £3.9bn if all bridges work awaiting funding is included – but authorities are spending only £447m a year on maintenance and structural repairs of their entire bridge stocks, according to the RAC Foundation.

The survey of local authority highway bridge teams in Britain has been carried out with the help of ADEPT (the Association of Directors of Environment,  Planning and Transport) and with data obtained from organisations responsible for national roads and bridges across England, Scotland and Wales.

The total of 3,203 represents 4.4% of the 72,000 bridges on Britain's local road network. Many of these substandard bridges will have weight restrictions applied, making them unuseable for many HGVs and causing increased loading and congestion on bridges which can be used.

The survey has been released to highlight growing concern over a chronic lack of funding for local authorities' bridge repairs. As the shortage of funds continues, it becomes progressively unlikely that highway teams will be able to claw back backlogs of work without a compeltely different model of funding.

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding, said: “It’s the pothole backlog that normally hits the headlines but it is easy to forget all the other aspects of road maintenance that councils are involved in; from clearing ditches to cutting verges to maintaining bridges.

“In the face of growing traffic volumes and ageing infrastructure the danger is that without an adequate long-term funding settlement we will see more rather than fewer bridges with weight restrictions, with the backlog bill getting bigger all the time.”

The RAC Foundation report gives a breakdown of bridge data for 199 authorities that responded out of 207 authorities contacted for information. Devon has the highest number of substandard structures, at 249 but mostly by virtue of it having the highest number of bridges. Devon's 9% proportion of weak bridges is small compared to Slough's 47% – the worst by far – followed by Bristol (37% of a total of 140), Croydon (36%), Islington (33%) and Middlesbrough (29%).

Liz Kirkham, chair of the ADEPT Bridges Group, said: “The ADEPT Bridges group supports Local Authority Bridge Managers throughout the country and was pleased to work with the RAC Foundation on an important issue that can get overlooked. The figures identified by the RAC Foundation survey present a true picture of the funding backlog our members face. The problem is only compounded by the skills shortage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), which is having a serious impact across all engineering and manufacturing sectors. A growing number of substandard and restricted bridges that are not adequately maintained affect journey times and for rural communities in particular have an economic impact, creating barriers to growth."