Expert Blog

Why councils should care about potholes

Earlier this year, we celebrated National Pothole Day with a post on this blog. It quoted some research by LV= which found that, in the financial year of 2014/15, councils paid out a combined £1.6 million in compensation to motorists whose vehicles had been damaged by those damnable holes in the ground.

Now some new research has arisen that takes a broader look at the compensation paid out by councils – and the numbers could be even worse than we previously thought.

This research, by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, finds that councils have had to pay out over £100 million in compensation during the past two financial years. Not all of this is related to potholes, but £8 million of it is. £8 million! And that’s just for the known cases. The true figure is likely to be higher, as councils don’t always record the reasons behind the compensation payments.

Why doesn’t this match up with LV=’s research? For one, their £1.6 million figure was for one financial year, whereas the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s £8 million figure is for two financial years. But there seem to be some other differences too. LV=’s research focused on the compensation paid out to car drivers, whereas the Taxpayers’ Alliance includes, say, the £20,000 incurred after a cyclist hit a pothole and was flung into one local authority’s roadway.

In any case, these may seem like insignificant numbers beside the £12 billion that the Asphalt Industry Alliance reckons is needed to fix the entire road network – but they’re not. George Osborne’s latest Autumn Statement implies that funding for local government will be cut by about 56 per cent over the next four years. In this sort of fiscal environment, councils certainly should worry about the £millions they’re losing in compensation payments. Money is tight. It ought to be spent as well as possible.

Besides, there are political reasons for councils to fill in potholes. A survey conducted by the AA a couple of years ago – and cited on this blog before now – found that 91 per cent of motorists would be more likely to vote for a particular political party if that party promised to mend the roads. That survey was talking about national, rather than local, politics, but one assumes the same principle applies in both cases. Councillors, who are collectively responsible for 98 per cent of the country’s road network, are more likely to be re-elected if they act accordingly. 

It’s not just economics and elections, though. Far from it. The most important element in this mix is safety. Every one of those compensation claims represents an accident of some sort. Some of these will be merely cosmetic, some will be much more serious than that, but there’s a common denominator between them all: potholes are a danger to motorists and cyclists alike.

None of this is to slander councils, who will be working hard to fill in potholes, particularly after the battering the roads have received recently. It’s simply to point out the truth. If we want our roads to be as safe as possible – and we do – then potholes cannot be a part of them.

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