Potholes, neglect and the wanton vandalism of local infrastructure

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.



  1. Graham -

    Same in Scotland. The backlog in England was estimated at 12bn two years ago. Meanwhile, LA are set to receive 52 times less funding than National roads.

    I cycle for leisure once a week and can confirm all that you say. I would say that for cyclists many roads are actually in a dangerous condition – potholes, repairs on top of repairs, pitting, sunken/raised drain covers. Too much time is spent looking for surface hazards rather than watching the traffic – same when driving.

    I also cycle in Spain where the roads are a delight and with far less traffic. They also have wide margins at each side, with a painted line, giving somewhere to move into if required.

    And unlike British roads (LA roads) they are built above the surrounding land, so that water can run off, whereas ours are built in a trench with a high verge at either side, ensuring that rain can’t drain away and that the road will eventually be undermined by water.

    It’s a national disgrace.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I had the same experience last week in the Highlands; potholes galore. It is no better in Northumberland. I a disgrace how far behind we have fallen as compared to our European neighbours,

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      I’d missed that blog from you, Peter, otherwise would have linked to it, but you’re correct – not only not any better but worse I’d say. You ask the question ‘this must happen to Conservatives too’ and it must, but it doesn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference as far a a Tory government are concerned. All the money in the world (or from the money tree) for the big, sexy, stuff – like motorways, major rail projects and so on – but the rest can simply go to the dogs.

      1. Peter May -

        Which suggests, I suppose unsurprisingly, that they lack empathy. But what seems to me to be the case is that it also pretty clearly demonstrates that they don’t think properly. Why would they want their car to be damaged? True they can afford it, but as I suggested what about the hassle? How is it efficient?
        As a friend of mine used to say I really don’t think they’ve got both oars in the water…

  2. Geoff -

    Pleased to say we live full time in France.
    This article from last June in the FT seems to cover your blog Ivan as well as the funding implications going forward. A sad state of affairs and getting worse year on year.


  3. Geoff -

    I clicked on the article after posting it and it seems to be a pay to read? I googled “government grants to local authorities to stop” it was at the top and free to read. Sorry about that.

  4. Peter Smith -

    Ivan, some joker calling himself Donny Littlechef has popped up on Richard Murphy’s blog attempting to I presume take the mickey out of your contribution.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Thanks for pointing it out, Peter. I’ve had a look. Agree, someone taking the p— and Richard hasn’t spotted it. That said, using PQE to address what’s now approaching a catatrophic level of disrepair is possible, but as I point out, that presupposes we have the capacity and capability to do so and I no longer think that exists. In other words, throwing money at the problem can no longer solve it.

      1. Peter May -

        We can agree about the capacity but surely the capability still remains on the grounds that if we can do motorways we can do country lanes? (Mind you, some of those lanes down here in the darkest south west are so degraded that I’ve often wondered if I haven’t taken a farm track by mistake.)

      2. Bat Sheetcrazee -

        So cutting money to LAs is a cause of the problem. But giving the money the LAs might say they require will not solve it.

      3. Peter Smith -

        Your point is ?

  5. Graham -

    One of the factors in the state of the roads, perhaps rural roads in particular, is the volume of traffic, particularly heavy traffic, which, because of its size often have to travel very close to the edge of the tarmac and sometimes over it onto the verge – causing damage. Potholes appear and traffic exacerbate their deterioration.

    A sensible transport policy would, instead of building new roads which only increases traffic, aim to reduce journeys undertaken by motorised vehicles in favour of public transport, walking and cycling.

    The damage caused by traffic to the infrastructure, to health and the environment by pollution, the economic costs of congestion and the costs of road traffic collisions are huge and not properly accounted for by those who cause them.

  6. Andy Crow -

    What I don’t understand about the current situation is that Local Government appears supine in accepting the level of cuts being imposed by central government.

    I can only assume that the senior officers are so very well paid these days that they are cynically taking the money and trying not to rock the boat. Elected Councillors get the flack, so the paid officers are reasonably well insulated.

    As the roads get worse they can afford to buy even bigger SUVs with bigger wheels, so …what the hell……?

    A classic case of private wealth and public squalor.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Andy, a link that Graham provided in his comment takes you to the Local Government Association’s web site where they point out that by 2020 Highways England will have received 52 times more money for the motorway and trunk road network than LAs will have for local roads. Leaving aside the stark raving madness of this, it does illustrate that the LGA is at least reporting the issue. But making a loud noise? I agree, not so much – perhaps because the LGA is nowadays Tory controlled so presumably compromised on how tough it is on central government.

Comments are closed.