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!!!
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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.