Thousands of Britain’s road bridges are in a ‘substandard’ condition

More than 3,000 council-owned bridges in Britain are unable to carry the heaviest vehicles on our roads, says a new report released today.

The estimated cost to bring all the ‘substandard’ bridges back up to perfect condition is £1.12 billion, according to analysis of 2018/19 data by motoring research charity the RAC Foundation.

Many of the structures are currently subject to weight restrictions, while others are under programmes of increased monitoring or even managed decline. 

The Government has confirmed today that 32 local authorities will receive part of a £93million fund to improve the condition of some of England’s most damaged local roads.  

Bridges over troubled water: More than 3,000 council-owned bridges in Britain are unable to carry the heaviest vehicles on our roads, says a new report

Devon has the highest number of substandard bridges at 241, followed by Essex (163), Somerset (153) and Cornwall (140).

Some are substandard because they were built to earlier design standards, while others have deteriorated through age and use.

Many bridges have been affected by flooding and hit by debris carried along by rivers in recent weeks.

A total of 3,061 bridges under the responsibility of local councils are deemed substandard, though this is an improvement compared to last year.

The RAC Foundation says the figure has fallen by 4.2 per cent over the past 12 months.

Between them, local authorities say they would ideally want to bring 2,084 of them back to full carrying capacity.

Local Authority Number of bridges Number of substandard bridges Proportion of substandard bridges
Devon 2717 241 9%
Essex 915 163 18%
Somerset 1507 153 10%
Cornwall 1009 140 14%
Suffolk 1298 126 10%
Northumberland 979 102 10%
Lancashire 1473 76 5%
Aberdeenshire 1311 66 5%
Cumbria 1901 66 3%
Conwy 286 61 21%
Source: RAC Foundation       

But budget constraints mean they anticipate that only 359 will have the necessary work carried out on them within the next five years.

The analysis is based on figures provided by 203 of Britain’s 210 local highway authorities, which manage 71,505 bridges.

It was carried out in partnership with Adept, a group representing local authority bosses responsible for transport and other sectors.

Parts of Wool Bridge in Dorset collapsed into the river in January 2018 after falling into a substandard condition

Parts of Wool Bridge in Dorset collapsed into the river in January 2018 after falling into a substandard condition

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding described the conditions of road bridges as a ‘canary-in-a-coal-mine indicator for the health of the highway network as a whole’.

He said: ‘While our survey shows a marginal year-on-year improvement, it still reveals that, while the number of structures highway authorities expect to bring up to standard in the next five years is in the hundreds, the number they’d like to restore to manage traffic demand is in the thousands.

‘The recent closure of a key bridge in Nottingham shows just how bad the traffic impact can be when a structure on a key distributor route is found wanting.’

Sat-nav manufacturer TomTom said the closure of a bridge on the A52 – which is used by tens of thousands of motorists every day – due to corrosion damage made an evening rush-hour more congested than any other city in the world. 

It has been partially reopened, but is not expected to be fully operational before the end of the year.

West London’s Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to motor traffic since April 2019 because of cracks in its pedestals.

Gooding added: ‘As recent storms have demonstrated, our road infrastructure – including bridges – is under attack not just from the ever-growing volume of traffic but from the elements.

‘Highway authorities desperately need the money and the engineering expertise to monitor and ensure our highways – our most valuable publicly-owned asset – are properly maintained and kept open for business.’

Kevin Dentith, who chairs the Adept national bridges group, said: ‘Alongside the misery recent rain and flooding has brought to householders and businesses, many highway authority bridge owners will be fearful of what they find when the waters recede.

‘The vast volumes of water – and the debris they carry with them – will have pummelled our road bridges, some of which are already in a fragile state.’

David Renard, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, added: ‘This study underlines the chronic need for more investment in local roads. 

‘The backlog of repairs on our existing highways infrastructure as a whole currently stands at over £9 billion and it would take 10 years to fix.

‘Flooding events in recent weeks have shown how vital bridges are in linking together communities and enabling shoppers and local traders to go about their business. They are of critical importance to our national economy.’

Devon has the highest number of substandard bridges at 241, according to the research

Devon has the highest number of substandard bridges at 241, according to the research

New £93m Government investment to help repair some local road bridges  

Roads Minister Baroness Vere announced today that 32 local authorities will receive investment for essential repair works, levelling up infrastructure, cutting congestion, improving road conditions and making journeys easier.

This includes over £4million for crucial repairs to the New Elvet Bridge in Durham along with £3.7million to help refurbish several steel bridges around Northumberland.

This comes as Government boosts UK innovators through a £900,000 investment to fund cutting-edge research projects aimed at creating a better transport system – the first of which include world-leading innovations to spot and repair potholes.

Roads Minister Baroness Vere said: ‘There is nothing more frustrating than a journey delayed by poor road conditions, and this multi-million pound boost will help improve connectivity across the country.

‘This investment will not only help local areas to target current pinch points on their roads, but will also harness our world-leading research and innovation capabilities to future proof the next generation of journeys.’

One of the projects to receive funding for tech projects will see the development of a new AI-powered app to detect potholes in real-time, using mobile phone sensors to measure when cyclists ride over or swerve to avoid them. 

It is hoped the app will help local authorities to quickly identify when potholes are forming and take quicker action to fill them.

Another project known as Shape-Pot will create 3D pothole models to create a fully autonomous repair platform capable of automatic, uniform repairs – accelerating the transport network of the future. 


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