The refrain was often heard during the local elections campaign that the relevant issue to vote on was not partygate, but who could best fill the potholes. There was also some outspoken debate about the level of Council Tax, planning controversies, and the frequency of bin collections. But anger over potholes was also pretty high up on the list of voter concerns.
Now the elections are over, councillors have a responsibility to deal with the priorities of those they represent. It has been claimed, based on FOI requests, that Conservative councils fill more potholes than comparable Labour ones. That may well be true.
According to the 2022 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey, the number of potholes filled in the last year was 1.7 million – the equivalent of one being filled every 19 seconds. That report comes from the asphalt industry but it uses data from local authorities. It found that the backlog of repairs has increased. Roads are only resurfaced, on average, once every 70 years – though there is quite a bit a variation; in London it’s once a generation, in the rest of England once a lifetime. That is why there is such reliance on the temporary expedient of filling potholes. The proposed solution is to resurface roads much more frequently.
The difficulty is that getting all roads resurfaced would be expensive and take a long time – the report mentions an extra £12 billion needing to be spent over nine years. Highway authorities in England and Wales are responsible for over 205,100 miles of roads.
Councils spend £107 million a year fixing potholes. Plus another £20 million a year in compensation for pothole damage to vehicles. But the cost to motorists is much higher than that £20 million figure. A survey for Kwikfit puts the cost of repairs at £1.25 billion. A third of drivers said their vehicles were damaged by potholes in the past year. Very few have managed to get councils to pick up the bill.
So local authorities are failing to maintain their roads properly – leaving a huge bill for others to pick up.
Nothing much has been done about it. Except in Stoke-on-Trent. The Council there has been making dramatic progress since purchasing a new machine from JCB, called the PotholePro. It fixes a pothole in eight minutes – four times faster than existing methods. It also does it at half the cost. Most importantly the repair is also much more effective. Keep in mind the environmental and economic benefit of minimising the time our roads are closed with noisy and dusty machines.
Councillor Daniel Jellyman, The Council’s Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Regeneration and Heritage, comments:
“We are delighted with the success of the JCB PotholePro and the speed at which it is maintaining the city’s road network. To have completed almost three years of work in just over four months is astounding and speaks volumes for this solution over traditional methods.”
Stoke is a Conservative council. Labour-run Coventry is following its lead by embracing this new technology. Several others are expected to make announcements soon. So that is welcome. But what about the other 150 councils in England that are highways authorities? Or the 32 councils in Scotland? Or the 22 in Wales? Or the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland?
Inertia and vested interests come into play. Most councils have a contractor who is paid according to the number of potholes fixed. This creates a perverse incentive not to embrace technology which would result in the repair being permanent rather than a temporary bodge-up. But why wouldn’t the Council insist? It could cancel or renegotiate the contract. The Council’s Director of Highways would have no motive for doing so. He or she would still be paid (usually a six figure salary) for muddling along rather than the extra work involved in changing arrangements.
It really is a scandal. Consider the other costs. At least for motorists, it is usually just financial. But cyclists routinely experience physical injuries due to potholes – including dozens of serious injuries a year and often some deaths. Minor injuries among cyclists are commonplace.
What about the workers? Filling potholes with the methods typically in use is not attractive work. Hand-arm vibration syndrome – also known as “vibration white finger” – is an unpleasant condition caused by working with hand-held vibrating tools. It can be painful and result in numbness making it impossible to carry out simple tasks like doing up buttons. That is often the consequence of toiling away with a pneumatic drill for decades. Big compensation payments are negotiated in extreme cases. But the JCB machine eliminates the risk – the work is done dry and warm from the vehicle’s cab. Why are the trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive not pushing for it?
The Government needs to give local authorities a bit of a nudge on this one. Supposedly there is a legal requirement for councils to obtain best value. The statutory guidance states:
“Best Value authorities are under a general Duty of Best Value to “make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.” Under the Duty of Best Value, therefore, authorities should consider overall value, including economic, environmental and social value, when reviewing service provision. Authorities also have a statutory duty to consider social value for services above specified procurement thresholds at the pre-procurement stage. Authorities can however apply the concept of social value more widely than this and this Guidance recommends that authorities consider social value for other contracts (for example below the threshold or for good and works) where it is relevant to the subject matter of the contract and deemed to be beneficial to do so.”
Obviously, this obligation is being widely disregarded so far as road maintenance is concerned. How could it be enforced? I would suggest that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, should write to the highways authorities stating that she seeks reassurance that the guidance is being adhered to with regard to opportunities provided by new technology. It’s not for her to recommend using a particular product. If a competitor to JCB comes along with something better that is fantastic. But the local authority must be rigorous in showing it is obtaining the best possible value for money. If not, then Baroness Vere should send in hit squads to take over – starting in the areas with the worst results. After all, we put failing schools under new management as “sponsored academies.”
She would probably only need to do this a few times before finding, with Samuel Johnson, that it “concentrated the minds wonderfully” in highways departments elsewhere.
Yet with my sentimental belief in local democracy is it too much to hope that local councillors might also be able to make some progress? They will be well aware from canvassing that the scourge of potholes is not trivial so far as their voters are concerned, but a key political issue. But is it not also a moral issue? We have the gratuitous failure of local authorities to carry out their responsibilities. This failing involves a cost being imposed on others, not just financially, but also of injury and death. It should no longer be shrugged off.