OPINION: 2024: future trends, desirable outcomes

By Brian Kent, National Technical Director, Tarmac

As people, we can sometimes expect the future to be radically different to the present, but we need to be realistic. With that in mind, I’m not going to try and future gaze too far ahead but instead, look briefly at the emerging trends, issues and desirable outcomes for the highways sector in 2024.

1)  The lowest carbon options are often found outside of standards

With limited financial resources and carbon emergency targets, local authorities need to be open to innovation. The aim this year should be to move beyond ‘commodity’ highways materials and progressing new treatments and approaches that may require a departure from standards. This calls for enlightened clients but also road designers and consultants working much more closely with suppliers to challenge the status quo.

Our work in 2023 with Hartlepool Borough Council and Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council demonstrated that it’s possible, if we challenge standards, to deliver resurfacing projects which can save up to 80 per cent of carbon compared to traditional approaches. 

More can, and should, be done in this area.

2) Think beyond potholes and let’s plan for 20-year roads

Potholes are always a hot topic due to them being a huge problem across our road network. The only way we can move on from the repetitive narrative around potholes is to think beyond current superficial ‘surface only’ approaches and look at projects that will last 20 years and beyond. In a world of 12-month budget allocations and short political cycles, it is all too easy to look for short-term fixes.

We need to be viewing roads as having a life span measured in decades not years. It is important to better understand the way pavements deteriorate over time including the lower layers. Resurfacing alone will not keep a road going forever. From time to time, structural renewal of binder and base layers will be required to deliver the best outcome in whole-life cost terms. Many surface failures that we encounter, and the winter crop of potholes, are symptoms of something wrong deeper down.

3) Potential political change and five-year road budgets

The UK is potentially on the cusp of political change in 2024 and with that should be a greater opportunity to look at central government providing five-year budget allocations to councils. National Highways has a five-year allocation, which makes it easier for clients, contractors and suppliers to plan the most sustainable schemes.  

With local authorities, annual local budgets often mean that some materials may not be laid at the optimum time of year, and we have the cyclical ‘mad March’. 

4) Low carbon binders must become standard practice

Low carbon bio binders must become more common practice across UK highways. This is because they contain biocomponents and can lock carbon within asphalt road surfaces, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere and effectively creating a carbon-sink.

An example from Shell, successfully trialled in schemes across England, delivers a 250kg carbon dioxide reduction per tonne of bitumen. In addition to this, Tarmac has since worked with Shell to create a carbon sink containing higher quantities of biocomponents which was in fact used late last year to resurface a section of the A689 in Wynyard, near Hartlepool (with up to a 375kg carbon dioxide reduction per tonne of bitumen), showing what can be achieved through persistent innovation.

Bio binders work well in asphalt as it’s one of the most recycled materials in the world. Meaning once the carbon has been sequestered, it can stay in the road network for an extended duration, and through multiple constructions.

What will you do differently in 2024? Some of these points fall out of our control; others provide great opportunities to work together to do things differently. The near future is probably not radically different from the present, but it’s imperative our industry keeps evolving at pace.

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