From the Silk Road trading routes to the Roman highway network, roadways have greatly influenced how societies and economies have developed around the world.

In more recent times it was Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam who paved the way for modern road construction methods. Scotland’s road network, shaped by history and delivered by civil engineers, remains a critical part of our national infrastructure.

Each and every day, Scotland’s roads provide a vital lifeline for communities around the country. Outside our main urban areas, roads are often the only way for people to travel. Roads allow for food deliveries to reach our supermarkets, ambulances to reach hospitals, buses to transport commuters and much, much more. Our road network isn’t just about transport either – many roads also act as utilities corridors, carrying gas, electricity, and broadband connectivity as well as things like drainage systems within their structure.

This fundamentally important network finds itself in a time of challenge and change, raising the big question – what should our roads look like in the future?

The first of these challenges is our roads’ state of repair. Many road users will have despaired at hitting a pothole – a symptom of the lack of maintenance that has plagued Scotland’s road network. Decades of underspend on road maintenance has resulted in a repair backlog totalling billions of pounds, according to Audit Scotland.

Without urgent action that price tag will only increase and Scotland’s roads will only get worse for people who rely on them. The lack of maintenance isn’t just a cost issue, it’s a safety one. Damaged road surfaces can contribute to accidents, and elements like lighting and signage all need to be well maintained.

Civil engineers have long advocated for a planned and proactive road maintenance regime – even calling for it to be made a statutory duty to prevent under-prioritisation in the face of continued pressure on local authority budgets.

Recently the Scottish Government has committed to increase maintenance spend across infrastructure, which is welcome – but how this will be apportioned across different sectors is yet to be fully determined. The Government is also encouraging us to “build as a last resort”. An investment hierarchy sets out that we should collectively maximise the use of our existing assets rather than building new ones. In that context – if we are to rely on often ageing assets and extend the use of our existing infrastructure – properly looking after what we have becomes ever more important.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in Scotland has a simple message: if you can’t maintain it, you can’t retain it.


The maintenance challenge is very considerable but layered on to it is an additional and pressing challenge: climate change impacts. Extreme weather events, driven by climate change, are increasing in frequency and severity. Weather such as intense rainfall and flooding present a particular challenge to our road network and have placed it under considerable strain. Quite simply, many of our roads weren’t built to withstand the type of weather that we’re seeing.

Climate change is pushing our roads to the point of failure, and this has a real impact on road users, communities and indeed the wider economy. High profile issues, such as landslides at the Rest and Be Thankful have captured political attention. Analysis commissioned by ICE Scotland showed that for every day the Rest and be Thankful is closed to traffic the Argyll economy loses £55,000. In 2020, it was closed for 119 days, a rough calculation showing therefore a £6.5million loss. At a time when policy-makers are looking to boot productivity and deliver post-lockdown economic recovery, we must ensure that our infrastructure functions as intended to support people and businesses.

Particular weak-spots like the Rest and Be Thankful sit alongside a catalogue of local failures. These are smaller, but likely in their hundreds if not thousands, causing disruption across the country. For our road network to stand up to the climate challenge, we need to tackle the community level resilience problems as well as the headline grabbers.

Extreme weather, driven by climate change, is not going away. The Institute of Civil Engineers in Scotland believes it is imperative that work is done to embed greater resiliency into our road network. We must ensure our assets can operate as they should and that disruption and economic losses are minimised. In doing so there’s also a wider opportunity in adapting infrastructure to make it more resilient. We can retain asset value, boost productivity, as well as incorporate new technologies and green solutions. We can make our infrastructure climate resilient, and make it better infrastructure for people around the country at the same time.

HeraldScotland: The A83 Rest and Be Thankful roadThe A83 Rest and Be Thankful road

Scotland’s roads will need to adapt to the climate emergency not just in terms of their ability to withstand climate change impacts, but in a wider sense too.

The need to decarbonise road transport is clear – and as we move towards zero-emission vehicles our road networks should adapt to support this change.

New technology is developing at an exciting pace to make roads safer, smarter, and greener. A network of electric-vehicle charging stations is already growing fast and is being accompanied by developments in “charging highways” – using cutting edge wireless technology to let road users “charge as they drive”.

Digitally connecting road networks is another area of development moving at pace – using real time data not just to do things like monitor traffic flows and embed better safety features (such as a warning signal if a vehicle is approaching the other side of a sharp bend) but to enable next-generation vehicle developments that rely on data points and a connected network.

New materials are advancing too. Significant industry investment is being put into developing more sustainable materials with a lower carbon footprint that can become part of a circular economy. Could roads soon be built from recycled plastics? Absolutely. And of course, new materials for construction don’t just come from a research lab. The industry is turning to nature, employing natural solutions in infrastructure development. For example, where in the past drainage was often managed by a network of pipes and concrete, it’s now planting. A very literal green addition to our infrastructure.

So, given these challenges how do we make our road network fit for the future?

Programmes of maintenance and adaptation for resiliency are required urgently. ICE Scotland recommends that policy-makers bring forward a resiliency audit across Scotland’s infrastructure, to determine real weak-spots and identify meaningful interventions. The more time that passes that more difficult and expensive it will be to tackle the repair backlog and build in climate resilience.

For resilience to take hold, and for our road network to make sense in the 21st century, they cannot be considered in isolation. Roads are a fundamental part of Scotland’s connectivity; they are the only transport network accessible to many, and roads underpin the transport of goods and essential services. They are hugely important, but so too is our public transport system, ports and harbours, and digital connectivity. Roads must be considered in tandem with wider infrastructure development. We cannot think about them in isolation.

Finally, we must be bold in supporting new sustainable technologies. Our road network won’t be un-built. It will continue to underpin Scotland’s transport and connectivity, but we must adapt, embrace new technology and ensure our network supports low-carbon vehicles.

It’s long past October 2015, but where we’re going we do need roads.

Hannah Smith is director of ICE (Institution for Civil Engineers) Scotland