Expert Blog

The Pothole Lottery

‘Terrible.’ That’s the one word summation given by Mark Lewis, a taxi driver in Barnet, when he reflects on the pothole situation in his area. And, if you walk around the streets, it’s easy to see what he means. That loose lump of asphalt at your feet? It used to belong to the road surface itself, but now there’s a yawning hole in its place. And there’s another hole near that. And another. For Mike, these patchwork, pockmarked roads have a direct effect on his trade. ‘I’ve ruined two tyres in the last six months.’

As it happens, Barnet may well be the pothole capital of the nation’s capital. According to an exposé by ITV, its Conservative-controlled council received more complaints about potholes last year than any other in the city. 1,772 in total. The top three of this disreputable podium was completed by Haringey, with 1,766 complaints, and Wandsworth, with 1,654.

This is part of the Great Pothole Debate doesn’t receive as much coverage as it should. We’re often told that Britain’s roads are substandard (which they are), or how much it would cost to bring them all back to a reasonable condition (£12 billion, according to the Asphalt Industry Alliance). But what about the local picture? Credit must go to ITV for highlighting the variations that exist beneath the national figures, and not just when it comes to the number of complaints. The borough of Newham paid out more in pothole-related compensation than the next seven boroughs combined. Enfield repaired a hundred times as many potholes as did Kensington & Chelsea.

What explains this pothole lottery? In part, it’s down to the way that local roads are managed. Our central government – the one that sits in Westminster – is directly responsible for the busiest roads that make up the ‘strategic road network’. But that’s just 2 per cent of the roads in England. Most of the responsibility for the other 98 per cent lies with the various local authorities. And that means various priorities, competences, cares and distractions. Democratic politics can be messy like that.

And democracy is having its say. According to Barnet Council’s latest Residents’ Perception Survey, the ‘condition of roads and pavements’ in the area is the public’s number one concern, tied with crime. As Mr Lewis reminds us, ‘the tyre companies in the area are doing a roaring trade’. If it carries on like that, the area’s elected representatives may find that they’re not.

But it’s not just politics at play. A thousand other variables, from economy to geography, affect the number of potholes in an area. What if one locality’s roads have to support more heavy lorries? What if those roads are battered by unpleasant weather? This is what parts of the country experienced last winter, with the rainstorms and the flooding – and the effects have been clear to see. According to potholes.co.uk, the number of compensation claims made in Somerset was 750 per cent higher in January and February of this year than in November and December of last. It was 400 per cent higher in Worcestershire. 353 per cent higher in Surrey.

It was this problem, of bad roads made worse by terrible weather that prompted the Government to act. In March of this year, George Osborne announced an emergency fund of £183.5 million for councils to put towards fixing their dilapidated roads. A further £168 million has since been divvied out. This money is more rigidly allocated than usual. Either the councils use if for laying asphalt, or they lose it.

No doubt the Chancellor also had his eyes on the opinion polls when he created this pothole fund. A survey conducted by the AA at the beginning of this year contained some striking evidence. Exhibit A: only 14 per cent of voters believe that the Conservatives are the best party for motorists. Exhibit B: voters are better disposed towards politicians who prioritise pothole repairs ahead of cuts to fuel taxes. And all this after Mr Osborne had foregone £billions, over the past few years, by either cutting or freezing fuel duty. A change of tactic was called for.

Whatever the motivation, there are signs that these changed tactics are working. The Asphalt Industry Alliance’slatest annual survey notes approvingly that more and more local authorities are taking part in the Department for Transport’s Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme and devising plans for their road networks. Also, with the extra money that’s been made available, there’s now a smaller gap between what the councilmen say they need and what they’re receiving.

But this doesn’t mean that pothole lottery is on the wane. Strangely enough, the new and improved set-up could actually serve to entrench it. A greater share of the money is being given to “a number of model authorities who were able to demonstrate best practice in highways maintenance”. This is right and proper: not only should good practice be rewarded, but doing so might also encourage negligent councils to up their game. But it also means that, at least in the short term, those “model authorities”such as Northamptonshire, Hampshire and Lancashirecould extend their lead over the rest.

Besides, there are still a hundred other differences between the various authorities – even on the very fundamental issue of how a pothole is defined. Official guidelines say that a pothole counts as a pothole when it is at least 40mm deep. But, according to that same Asphalt Industry Alliance survey only half of the authorities in London subscribe to that definition. In most cases, there’s nothing dodgy about this: depth is only one of the factors that should be considered when prioritising which holes to fix. But that is scant consolation for those motorists who feel ill-served by their own council.

What’s the answer to this gravelly conundrum? Well, spreading and standardising best practice is part of it. So too, after years of underfunding, is increasing the money for road maintenance. But perhaps the best thing would be to stop thinking in terms of filling in potholes, and start thinking about preventing them. At the moment, councils are being encouraged to play whack-a-mole with their road networks: coming down hard on potholes whenever they appear. It would be far better if they had the resources for a long-term game: laying down new surfaces, and keeping them in good nick.

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