For most people, highway maintenance is not a day to day concern. But not every road is the responsibility of the local council. What if your street is “unadopted”?
Across the UK most people take for granted the fact that the street outside their home has a solid surface, that rainwater runs off into drains, and that lights come on at night. Most people don’t give it a second thought because all those things are taken care of by their local authority - or, for the smaller number who live on a trunk road, by a national authority like Transport Scotland.
Streets that are maintained at public expense in this way are known as “adopted” roads - as in, your local council has adopted the street and is now responsible for its upkeep. There’s a special word to describe it because it’s not universal.
Some streets - a minority nowadays, but there are still plenty of them around - are “unadopted”. They’re public streets, yes, and a public right of way. You can walk or drive on them just the same as any other street. But they’re not maintained by the local council and instead the people who own the adjoining premises are directly responsible for maintaining them.
If you live on an unadopted street, the chances are you live on an unsurfaced road, with a gravel or mud surface and an ever-changing slalom course of potholes to negotiate. Your street might not be lit, it probably has no functioning drainage beyond whatever natural slope there is, and it might not even have footways separate from the road.
Recently, unadopted streets made the news, when Southampton City Council took the remarkable step of spending £250,000 of public money on an unadopted street. They had no liability for it, it wasn’t theirs to maintain, and yet they agreed to hand over quarter of a million pounds to see it resurfaced. The result was no small amount of controversy. They had their reasons, which we’ll examine in a moment - but first, let’s take a short detour to ask why unadopted roads exist at all.
Who owns the street?
If you own your home, you might own more land than you think. Often, a property boundary is the centreline of the street or road outside, so beyond your front garden and your front fence lies some more of your land. It’s the same in the countryside - a farmer’s land usually extends up to the centre of adjoining roads, or even right across the road if they own fields on either side.
But a public highway is overlaid on private land, just like a public footpath is overlaid upon a farmer’s field. The land beyond your front fence isn’t yours to do with as you please because it forms part of a highway, and must be kept clear for the passage of people and vehicles. Your ownership of it is largely theoretical.
But many rights of way exist without anyone from the council turning up to install drainage, lighting and a solid surface. Otherwise every public footpath would be treated that way. For a public highway to be maintained at public expense, at a standard suitable for motor traffic, requires it to be adopted, which is the formal process by which a highway authority accepts a section of highway into its care.
Most roads in most towns and villages are already adopted, and where builders make a new street to serve a development of new houses or buildings, they will make an agreement with the local authority to have it adopted. That usually means building the road to meet certain standards, ideally so that the highway authority will only have to worry about routine maintenance.
But not all highways have been adopted, and not all houses are on estates or developments of purpose-built roads. Some were built off the beaten track. Some were built by developers who had no interest in the expense of providing a road that met the council’s exacting standards. Some are on roads that are unadopted and nobody can remember why. For those people, ownership of the highway beyond their front fence isn’t theoretical at all; it’s very much their problem.
The kindness of strangers
If you do live on an unadopted road, keeping it in a state that’s fit for use is the responsibility of you and your neighbours. How you make that work is for you all to decide.
In some places everyone maintains the bit outside their own property, which can result in a patchwork quilt of varying standards. In other places one resident might be in a position to do more than the others. In the sort of unadopted road that’s run like a private street, residents might even all chip in to have someone come and fill the potholes for them.
Local authorities each take a differing approach too. If your street is in a rural area you might get nothing. In more wealthy urban surroundings, the council might feel more benevolent.
In the London Borough of Bromley, for example, there are a surprising number of unadopted streets of Victorian vintage - strange accidents of history, often part of a grid of streets where all the others are ordinary tarmac roads, and one link will be a dirt track. But Bromley is kindly towards the people who spend their days negotiating craters and ruts, and installs hand-me-down street lights on these roads so at least they’re not dark.
Bromley’s unadopted roads are now a museum of ancient streetlighting stock, accepting anything uprooted from elsewhere in the borough. 1930s cast iron lamps stand alongside concrete from the 60s and utilitarian hockey sticks from the 80s.
But under the lights, the streets are an assault course in summer and a swamp in winter. Perhaps the residents would like them to be adopted, for their street to be treated the same way as all the others nearby. But that’s never easy.
A scandal in Southampton
All of which brings us back to an anonymous little cul-de-sac in the northern suburbs of Southampton. Lordswood Close is an unadopted road of about fourteen houses. Its residents would like it to be adopted.
It was surfaced, once, but the tarmac is more than 70 years old now, and is breaking up badly. It had pavements too, at one time, but the flagstones are mostly broken and the distinction between what’s left of the road and what’s left of the pavement is hard to tell.
Like anyone who lives in an unadopted road, and would like the council to pick up the tab for repairs, the answer involves a large bill. A highway authority never wants to take on a big repair job, so - just like the builders of a housing estate - anyone looking to have their street adopted first needs to bring it up to an acceptable standard themselves.
The people of Lordswood Close have been asking since the sixties, but presumably the cost of the work to bring it up to scratch was more than fourteen households could raise.
Enter Southampton City Council, who arrived in November last year, accompanied by the sound of angels singing, and gave Lordswood Close something that never happens. They offered to fix the street themselves. Price: £250,000.
The scandal is one you can imagine. Quarter of a million pounds, spent on a road the council isn’t liable for, and where there’s a clear precedent that the residents themselves should stump up for repairs if they want the council to take over. It’s a remarkably bold decision for the council to have made, and to some eyes, a remarkably reckless and unjustifiable one too.
What sets Lordswood Close apart is its history. In this case, the street was completed just after the Second World War. It was built by a housing developer, and in the normal way, was laid out to meet the council’s standards, as they were at the time, ready for adoption. But it was never adopted.
The reason why Southampton City Council never adopted the road is unclear. Possibly it was just a clerical oversight at what must have been an extraordinary time, with large parts of the city to rebuild and countless people displaced or homeless after the war. But this is the reason Lordswood Close is being treated differently: it was never meant to be up for adoption in the first place. Once it’s fixed up, it will be adopted.
That reason isn’t enough for everyone, of course, and the debate about Lordswood Close continues.
Because of the unique circumstances, there isn’t much of a precedent here for anyone else living in an unadopted road, and who no longer wants the responsibility, or the risk of stepping in a pothole. For most streets the choice remains to pay a very large bill, or keep swerving around the craters.
From my experience dealing with a village with a few unadopted roads, the property market accounts for any liablity for maintenance of the unadopted road in the purchase price of the property. The buyer is buying at a price discounted for the future liabilities they have to face. Unfortunately, later, the buyers, although previously warned by their searches and solicitors, often do not understand or believe, along with other frontagers, that they have a collective responsibility for the maintenance and a potential liability, for example, if debris should escape onto the adopted highway.
Most of the roads in our neighbourhood are (or at least seem) unadopted. The conditions are either: broken-up surface, gravel with intermittent surface, or gravel/dirt road
Back in the 1990s I worked in council housing, when much of the housing was being sold off under Right to Buy. Housing estates constructed before the 1970s had never been adopted. The logic was that the roads had been built by the council, to the council’s standards, and were owned by the council, therefore there was no need to formally adopt the streets.
By the 90’s, councils were being encouraged to hive off their few remaining houses to housing associations or arms length management organisations. The stock then was mostly OAP bungalows and unmortgagable flats above the second floor. And when the housing stock went to the new organisation, the roads went too. This left the cost of upkeep of these unadopted roads to fall upon the few remaining tenants, as there was no mechanism to charge the costs back to those who had already exercised their right to buy. As more and more properties were sold off, there were fewer and fewer remaining tenants to pick up the cost of maintaining the roads.
I left housing for another career before this issue was resolved. Maybe in the Southampton case the houses were originally council stock and the roads were therefore never adopted?
From the description "unsurfaced road, with a gravel or mud surface and an ever-changing slalom course of potholes to negotiate" can I assume that none of the roads in Buckinghamshire are adopted!
Ha, ha – how true!
I wonder if the road that Rod Stewart was fixing has been adopted….
It seems education (or lack of!) of Highway Law by residents / Councillors / Politicians / Senior Highways officers is a key problem in the Welsh Local Authority that I work for. We have been bullied into undertaking illegal repairs to private roads just to keep the local politician happy (especially in the lead up to elections). Shameful!!!
Not sure if the laws are the same, but it can be treated as both fraud and malfeasance in public office as Highway money is ONLY for the public highway.
If I were you I would report it to the Borough/County Solicitor/Head of Legal Services and the Police under whistleblower rules.
I live on an unadopted road, part of the houses are owned by the council, shouldn't they be responsible for the road outside their properties?
The rear of our property is accessible via an unadopted lane which also serves 6 other properties. It is not our main entrance but can be useful and we wish to keep it that way! One of the neighbours has taken it upon himself to fill in potholes etc then tried to get money off the rest of us even though we weren't consulted beforehand. He has ulterior motives as he is trying to gain access to the rear of his property for building purposes, so we - and others - have refused to pay, on the grounds that there is no evidence of the actual cost etc. He is rumoured to be saying that the lane should be his because he's the only one looking after it, despite not being the last property fed by it, and by no means the oldest property, which is in fact ours...would he have any chance of winning this if it came to a legal battle?
You very likely to have the right to pass and repass over it, either by covenant or by historic use. So there are very few downsides of him effectively "adopting" your share of the road if he wants - the same reason people are desperate for the council to adopt their road. You just need a solicitor to draw up the paperwork. Although he may be less keen if he realises nothing he can do can stop you using the road.
We live on an unadopted road. Council fittd lightsa few years back. Telephone poles have fibre to the door boxes. We share the cost of gravel every 4 or 5 years. We knew what we were getting into from our solicitor and so far so good.
We live in one of these ‘Fleecehold’ new development arrangements that local councils so love as it palms off responsibility for increasing maintenance costs whilst adding housing stock that helps them meet their government targets.
Our road is a ‘private’ cul de sac with 108 private owned houses but also includes 30 social housing flats spread over 4 blocks at ends of our cul de sac. The private households are made up of 64 freehold houses and 44 leaseholders in private flat blocks . We have a management company that takes £120k in fees each year from all of us to ‘maintain and manage the estate’.
They in fact do next to nothing and our road is falling into ruin with 40% of our streetlighting having been out for 2 years and the estate is falling into total disrepair. The social housing blocks have a resident drug dealer bringing undesirables into to the estate - all of whom use our privately funded road, car parks and green spaces and all the crime and antisocial behaviour issues that go with it.
The issue is these management companies have little to hold them to account for a street like ours where you have a mix of freeholders and leaseholders and social housing. All sets of residents having very different legal rights for recourse where they are failing. And the management company knows it and uses this to its advantage. It’s standard thing is to use gerrymandered voting systems to avoid doing any action - by including all residents as standard, knowing most issues will only be cared about, relevant and responded to by a subset.
We like everyone else also pay council tax at full wack on top of our estate management fees. A street that is ‘private’ yet supports 4 social housing blocks of flats. Non residents also park for free all over our road to avoid paying car park fees at local train station into London. It’s a bloody nightmare.
There is no magic discount for buying houses in unadopted highways - if you look at prices in our road. They are surprisingly highly sought after still despite all these issues. First time or unaware buyers are massively missold the setup as a positive also. A ‘Private Road and Community’ is made to sound like a highly desirable thing at point of sale. If you never lived in an unadopted road you have little reason to know what issues you’ll likely face.
The unadopted highway issue is a complete racquet and sadly seems to be originating from the councils themselves as an answer to housing crisis. And then developers and property management companies are cashing in.
Councils need to step in and take some responsibility towards failing rotting infrastructure on these setups they arranged. A reasonable fair thing would be to at least give discounts on council tax to residents on these roads. And addressing this retrospectively - this money could be put back into fixing failing estates. Ideally though an investment in readoption programmes would be the best option.
But what is the future cost of liability ie how can you estimate the percentage decrease of the value of your home on an unadopted road vs. a home on an adopted road
How long is a piece of string? There’s no simple answer to that, it depends on too many specifics about the road, the state it’s in and the arrangements for maintaining it. None of that means you should assume your house price will decrease, though.
Agreed there are multiple factors, but trying to boil it down to something tangible, if there are two identical houses on two streets next to each other but one is on an adopted road and the other is on an unadopted road that is managed through a third-party paid for by an annual maintenance charge, would there be no different in the price buyers would be willing to pay for one over the other?
Of course there will be a price difference. It will depend on
a) the state of the road. There is a concrete unadopted road near me which I suspect has had no maintenance since it was put in in the 1970s. At some stage there will be a large repair bill, but this could be decades away vs frequent maintenance for a gravel road.
b) the perceived hassle of arranging this with their neighbours.
c) the fact the road is probably going to look less sightly because of the delay in arranging any repairs.
d) whether the buyers appreciate the cost of road repairs.
e) whether the buyers decide to use the road (and probable reduction in potential purchasers) to negotiate the price down.
The advantage of unadopted roads is that homeowners have much more control to set speed limits and design. I know a few that have put in speed bumps which would never be allowed.on the public highway, and speed limits of 5mph. If you live on a road that would otherwise be a rat run I can see why such control would be appealing.
tl;dr any price difference depends on loads of factors and it's impossible to provide a precise figure.
The town (or is it a large village?) of Jaywick in Essex has almost no roads that have been adopted by the local council.
I am on a committee for our unadopted Road. Most home owners pay £100 per year for maintenance. There are some owners who refuse to pay. It’s not that they cannot afford it, just unwilling to be responsible. Is there any action the committee could take?
Where I used to live in Brighouse (West Yorkshire, between Huddersfield and Bradford), there were several short and extremely steep streets leading from my street down to the main road that ran parallel to it, the steepest parts of which were cobbled, had handrails and steps on the pavement for pedestrians, and were signposted as being "unsuitable for motor vehicles" - which didn't stop the occasional foolish driver from going down them anyway, and doing serious damage to the front of their chassis when they got to the bottom.
There were several side streets that linked those precipitous roads to each other, and I recall that at least one of them was unadopted - presumably because the road maintenance vehicles couldn't get into or out of them safely, and they were so narrow that anything wider than a fairly small car had a very high chance of getting stuck there.
I live on a cul-de-sac of 8 houses which is unadopted. Our street is heavily used as parking for a huge school around the corner which has caused considerable damage. The council provide lighting, bin collection and even occasional street cleaning services but refuse to pay for maintenance. Around 20 years ago, the residents clubbed together to pay for resurfacing. It wasn't cheap! A few months ago, a sink hole appeared in the middle of the road and the council wouldn't repair it. A very kind operative for the water board inspected it and knew it wasn't related to the sewage pipes but agreed to have the hole dug up to see if the problem was caused by the drainage. It wasn't, but they repaired it anyway, so it was paid for in a roundabout way by the council! There are now multiple pot holes and damaged pavement all along the road and it really needs redoing. Is there a possibility of getting the council to adopt the road? The damage caused is largely by staff and parents parking for a council funded school. It seems the local authority aren't interested as our street doesn't lead anywhere.
The short answer is that you'd have to ask the council, but their answer will likely depend on the state of the road, and if it's not in good repair they are unlikely to agree to take it on until it is. The best time to do it may have been 20 years ago - if residents were paying for it to be surfaced they could have negotiated with the council to agree the standard of the work and have it adopted once it was complete.
Salisbury has one of these, and seemingly only one - I've never seen another unadopted road anywhere else in the local area:
Googling it reveals that it's run as a private company with (presumably) the local residents as directors. I've always why that road, and only that road, is set up like that. It stands out because it's not a cul-de-sac, it actually joins two completely normal streets.
I live on a unadopted street in Oldham Lancashire. For many years repairs have been carried out by the RESIDENTS. As the street is used by all users including pedestrians and school children it's become full of pot holes so I've been trying to get repairs done by our local authority who are adamant it's not their problem due to its status so repairs can't be done at public's cost? Shortly after this statement I came across a article on line showing a unadopted street also in Oldham receiving repairs at public cost these repairs also being carried out by the local authority? At the moment my local councilor is involved as I've made my complaints that the council are using double standards and also seem to be braking the law???? This situation has been going on for some time now but I've informed my councillor that if things don't get sorted I am prepared to take my complaints to the ombudsman service. I would very much like to hear any comments regarding this matter. Thanks Steve.
The lane at the back of our house is higher then our garden, there is also a sharp bend in it, the issue we have as the vehicles have got bigger, but the road hasn’t, the vehicles are damaging a dry stone wall, plus pushing the bushes over, it’s mainly tractors and large trailers, but also lorries, I approached the local Swansea Highways department to ask if they could put up a barrier to stop the road being pushed into our rear garden, they refused stating it’s a undopted road so not there issue, but they have couple of street lights on the road, they have been cutting the verges, even filling in the pot holes, they also sent me a map of the roads in the area that they are responsible for, and ours isn’t, but another road that joins it just past our garden is, but that hasn’t been touched in years, I’ve explained this to the highways but, they still refuse to except responsibility, the lane can be very busy at certain times of the day, I’ve even asked a member of the council to come out, but they have wiped their hands, my next move is to place some large rocks to stop the damage, and I mean large rocks with a help of a friend and his digger, they will moan when the road collapses in to our garden.
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- Row over plans to mend Southampton road not owned by council. Southern Daily Echo, 9 November 2021.
- Lights and path included in unadapted road plan in Southampton. Southern Daily Echo, 10 November 2021.
- Photographs of Lordswood Close are courtesy of @Nathan_A_RF.