No one who uses any form of road transport can have missed the appalling condition of roads in England. But here I need to add an immediate qualifier: I’m talking specifically about urban, suburban and rural roads that fall under the responsibility of local highway authorities (i.e. local councils). I’m not talking about the motorways and major A roads that are the responsibility of Highways England (HE – what used to be the Highways Agency).
This distinction – between local authority and HE ‘ownership’ – is vitally important in understanding what’s happening with roads and related infrastructure in England. Indeed, the most obvious feature of it can and will be experienced by anyone who regularly uses any combination of motorway, major A, and local roads. So, speaking from personal experience as someone who drives from the north east side of Nottingham to Milton Keynes via the M1 on an almost weekly basis – and has done for the past 17 years – I noted last week that four or five 10 to 20 metre stretches of an A road that is the responsibility of Highways England had been entirely resurfaced. This was in response to the pitting of the tarmac that had occured over the winter. Note pitted – creating a rough surface when driven over – not, I emphasise, potholed. And not only had these stretches of road been resurfaced but the standard of the work was good. That is, the old tarmac had been cut back and the new tarmac was smoothly joined and sealed to the existing roadway.
The frequency of this work and the standard to which it is carried out is something I’ve noticed across all major A roads and motorways I’ve driven over the past year or more. But this contrasts starkly with what I – and indeed all road users (and I use that term deliberately to include motor cyclists and cyclists who actually suffer from the state of our roads far more than those of us on four wheels) – experience as soon as we leave the domain of Highways England.
Again, drawing on personal experience I can vouch for the fact that for years Milton Keynes had some of the best kept roads I’ve driven on. No more. They now largely replicate the roads I experience in and around Nottingham: potholes so deep they could seriously damage a wheel (not to mention throw a motorcyclist or cyclist from their machines) are commonplace; whole stretches of road (for a distance of nearly a mile in one case near where I live) are so badly worn, pitted and potholed, that driving over them is akin to a dirt track and cycling is nigh on impossible; almost invisible or non existent road marking; and manhole and drain covers that have sunk well below the level of the roadway are now an endemic feature of pretty much any road. The result is that it is now commonplace to witness the drivers of any form of transport weaving their way along a road as they seek to avoid damaging their vehicle or worse.
Sadly, this is not the full story. In common with many local highway authorities repair and maintenance in my area has been outsourced and with it has gone the standard of the repairs carried out – if they happen at all. Quite simply, the contractor turns up to a pothole, sticks a load of tarmac into it and tamps it down. There’s no attempt to cut the old tarmac back to sound material and then fill the hole or match the new tarmac to the old, level it off and seal the join. Instead the pothole is replaced by a mound of tarmac that now sits proud of the road surface – thereby creating yet another example of a potentially dangerous, uneven road – with rough edges which immediately allow water penetration and thus the conditions for the pothole to reappear.
I’ve been a driver for quite a long time – 43 years to be precise – and I know from speaking to other long standing road users that the view that we’ve never experienced local roads in such a state of disrepair and neglect is unanimous. Indeed, the roads in England now remind me of those I’ve witnessed over the years in countries that are generally accepted to be poorer and less “developed”, and thus the state of roads and infrastructure is to be expected.
In an earlier PP blog, ‘Move over, sleeping policeman’, Peter May suggested (tongue in cheek) that allowing local roads to fall into advanced states of disrepair was perhaps deliberate in that potholes could be seen as replacements for, or equivalent to, sleeping policemen – they serve to slow traffic. As humourous as that might sound we all know it’s not true, because the truth is that this is yet another result of this and the previous government’s austerity policies and the strangling of local authority funding specifically.
And as with the outcome of other austerity policies – such as all forms of health, social and community care, social work, youth services, probation, prisons, the NHS, and many more, the extent and scale of the damage done will take decades to repair. Indeed, sticking with roads as my example, I seriously doubt whether the capacity and capability now exists to return the roads that don’t fall under the purview of Highways England to their pre 2010 standard even if a government was willing to fund a major repair programme (as opposed to promises of one off pots of money to placate voters at election time).
It’s the nature of neglect that when the decay it causes passes a certain point repair becomes all but impossible. That applies as much to any product of public policy as it does to roads and infrastructure. And we are very close – or in some cases past – that point now. Some examples of neglect and decay are inevitable, of course. But where it’s deliberate – as in the case of local roads and infrastructure – it’s akin to wanton vandalism. That’s not an outcome of public policy I ever dreamt I’d witness in this country but we now appear to live with it on a daily basis.