Potholes: how are Lincolnshire and Rutland council's dealing with the problem?
Potholes are a perennial problem and one which, for an eye-watering price, we could permanently eliminate. The bigger question, perhaps, is can we afford not to? Chris Britcher reports...
What conjures up the arrival of spring for you? Daffodils? April showers? Or the emergence on our roads of potholes?
It’s a perennial problem and one which, for an eye-watering price, we could permanently eliminate. The bigger question, perhaps, is can we afford not to?
To give a sense of scale to the problem, it is estimated the roads of England and Wales see a pothole filled, on average, once every 19 seconds.
So far this year, Lincolnshire County Council has repaired 11,000 potholes. In March alone, 5,843 potholes were fixed and the council had 2,118 reported to them
But simply filling in the holes as they emerge is widely seen – by engineers and motorists alike – as akin to “putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound”.
Because a pothole is often a symptom of a wider problem on a stretch of road; one where a temporary solution does nothing to fix the basic integrity of a road’s surface – a surface which is frequently weakened further by the digging of trenches by utility companies.
Not to mention constantly fighting off the damaging influences of the volume of traffic, the weather and even the very ground on which it was first built.
And in a world where so much talk over the last 12 months has been of encouraging us all to cycle rather than drive, can we realistically be expected to do just that when our roads can become death-traps for those on two wheels?
“The issue of potholes is probably one of our most common themes of letters or emails we get,” said Jack Cousens, head of road policy at motoring organisation the AA.
“People keep asking ‘why are our roads in such bad condition?’”
Yet pointing the finger at one guilty party is not as easy as you may imagine. As we will discover, cursing Lincolnshire County Council (which maintains the county’s road network, with the exception of our major trunk roads) or even the district council (which has no responsibility for roads at all) the next time your car bounces in and out of a hole in the road, may not be entirely fair.
Because potholes have become a multi-billion pound dilemma caught up in a complex political web.
To make matters worse, the situation could be set to get worse.
According to a recent report by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, based on information obtained from local authorities across England and Wales, it would cost an additional £10.24billion – on top of the current funding levels – to get the nation’s roads back into shape. Oh, and that process would take 10 years.
But Mr Cousens says: “If you were a politician in central government, is turning around and saying we need billions of pounds to tarmac the UK sexy politics, for the want of a better phrase? It’s not really.
“People think it’s a given the roads are there and they should be maintained. If there’s then a big announcement pledging a huge chunk of money just to make them good enough, or just to get them back to where they should be, people will go ‘why the hell were you not doing that in the first place’?”
And it’s not just motorists who are frustrated by potholes – filling them in presents a big problem, especially when you’ve got one of the biggest road networks in England.
Lincolnshire County Council is responsible for 5,500 miles of roads compared to neighbouring Rutland County Council, which has 331 miles of roads.
Karen Cassar, assistant director for highways at Lincolnshire County Council, said: “The council hates potholes just as much as drivers do, and we work hard to repair them quickly and keep the roads safe.
“Just last year, the AA labelled Lincolnshire County Council a ‘big fixer’ due to the amount of work we did on our road network – more than almost any other council in the country.”
So what causes potholes to occur?
The majority of potholes appear during the winter months each year. They occur for a variety of reasons.
However, one key factor is the expansion and contraction of water as it freezes and unfreezes on and under the carriageway. This can cause the road surface to crack and break.
This can sometimes happen very quickly with potholes breaking out in areas where the carriageway has been weakened.
And Karen says the “very wet and cold weather we had this winter caused a lot more potholes to appear on Lincolnshire’s roads”.
Neighbouring Rutland County Council, which has a budget of £1.79m for road maintenance next year, says being in a rural area can present issues too.
A spokesman there said that carriageway construction along rural routes can vary in construction depth to those carriageways built more recently or renewed on strategic routes or in cities.
Overrides along country roads can also cause a problem when worn away by vehicles traveling off the surfaced carriageway into the verges. This can cause damage to the edge of the carriageways and cause sections to break out, requiring repair.
That being said, Rutland’s cabinet member for highways Lucy Stephenson says the council has “some of the best roads in the region”.
Just last week, the council trialled a new piece of machinery that can fix a pothole in just eight minutes. It may return to Rutland if the council’s contractor chooses to use the machine once it is widely available.
Malcolm Simms is director of the aforementioned Asphalt Industry Alliance – a body which advises local authorities and champions best practice in the use of road maintenance and investment.
He agrees that many roads are getting past their use-by date.
“In general in the UK, from an asset management perspective, most A-roads would be assessed on a 60-year design life,” he explains.
“That’s the entire structure of it – from top to bottom – and aligns with government guidance. After it reaches that limit, it should be decommissioned, for want of a better word.
“Within that 60 years, there is an anticipation the top layer, the road’s surface, will be maintained and replaced to protect the lower layers of the structure.”
The average life cycle of a road’s surface – the thinnest layer of the three-tier structure which forms the road from the bottom up – is about 20 years. Filling in any gaps doesn’t extend it, it just keeps it from death’s door.
The AA’s Mr Cousens adds: “At the moment you have roads which I call patchwork quilts. Which is where local authorities just patch and run, patch and run – constantly putting a sticking plaster over their infrastructure.
“Whereas what should actually happen, and what we advocate, is to resurface the whole road as it’s the structural integrity which is important. Having a patchwork quilt doesn’t really help because ultimately those patches will fail and you’ll have to redo what you’ve already patched up.
“And that is what riles the motorist.”
“To simplify it,” says the AIA’s Mr Simms on road maintenance, “it’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge – it’s a continuous job maintaining it from one end to the other and when you get to the end, you go back and start again.
“Patching up potholes is really just putting a plaster on a gaping wound.”
Another problem looms...
The government has long relied on vehicle excise duty – car tax – helping fund the coffers of its road improvements fund. But with the ban on new petrol and diesel cars less than 10 years away, it faces a dilemma.
Currently, electric vehicles are exempt from paying car tax in order to encourage take-up of the environmentally-friendly alternative to the combustion engine.
The AA’s Jack Cousens explains: “The issue of what replaces vehicle excise duty is the elephant in the
“Is it going to be some form of roads pricing, which in turn helps fund road maintenance? Is it going to be pay by the mile? Whatever the solution is, that should be having a fundamental role in how do we maintain, manage and improve the road infrastructure.”
Road pricing is a long-discussed school of thought which proposes different charges for different road use.
Mr Cousens says: “Do you charge people for using motorways, for using A-roads, for using local roads?
“Do you charge a fixed amount for driving 5,000 miles a year and a different amount for 10,000?
“The problem is it’s a highly contentious political decision.
“And no politician wants to be the one who says we’re going to do it.
“While I can understand it to a certain extent, politicians are very worried about the here-and-now response, as opposed to the long-term perspective.
“To use the parlance of [TV comedy show] Yes Minister, someone’s going to have to be courageous at some stage.”
Funding issue is a stumbling block
The stumbling block to tackling the issue, unsurprisingly, lies in funding.
The bulk of Lincolnshire County Council’s annual budget, as with all local upper tier authorities, comes from a grant from central government – a figure which has been in steady decline over recent years as Whitehall looks to make authorities more self-sufficient.
With much of that funding not ring-fenced, the allocation for roads maintenance can often fall victim to demands elsewhere.
The AA’s Jack Cousens says: “If you pitch the position that we could spend this money on people or we spend it on roads – people will probably always win. If it’s a case of filling in potholes or keeping open the local library, the library will win because it’s more person-orientated.”
Lincolnshire County Council says the cut in funding is “frustrating”.
The council has a road maintenance budget of £51m for 2020/21 – of which £12.3m is coming from its reserves after a 25 per cent reduction in the amount of funding it receives from the Department for Transport (DfT).
When the reduction was announced in February, executive member for highways Richard Davies said: “For such a vitally important service to be cut so drastically is frustrating and disappointing.
“We must receive more reports, requests and comments about our roads, than about any other county council service.”
Coun Davies said the council operates “as efficiently as it can”.
But he added: “Ultimately, the limit to how well we can maintain and improve our roads is based on how much money we can invest in it.
“This funding cut will mean less road resurfacing, fewer potholes filled, and more exacerbated motorists.
“I don’t want this to be the start of a worrying trend of cuts to our roads funding.”
At the moment all the council can afford to do is patch up the problem.
Karen, Cassar, assistant director for highways, said: “To tackle the problem of potholes, we introduced find and fix gangs to patrol our key A and B routes and quickly repair problems as soon as they found them.
“And where there were more serious, ongoing issues, we brought forward patching and resurfacing schemes to stop potholes forming in the first place – such as on the A15 between Lincoln and Sleaford, where we started resurfacing works this month.”
But the AA says that approach is a sign of where the system is going wrong when it comes to the upkeep of our road network.
Mr Cousens explains: “All local authorities are doing now is relying on members of the public to tell them when there’s a problem with their infrastructure and that can’t be a sustainable way forward.
“Ultimately, it gives the local authority an opt out option, which is ‘if we didn’t know the pothole was there, how can we be held responsible for it’.
“In my view, that’s not an acceptable way to look after your infrastructure. If you’re in charge of maintaining it, you should be consistently and constantly monitoring and managing that infrastructure.”
In 2019/20, Lincolnshire County Council was able to invest around £25,000 per mile in the road network, while London councils were able to afford an average of £62,000 per mile.
And more money is certainly needed – the recently announced plan to resurface and patch up section of the A121 between Bourne and Carlby is going to cost taxpayers £450,000.
Karen says it would cost an estimated £400m to bring all the roads and pavements in the county up to the “desired standard”.
She added: “We would always welcome more funding to help maintain and improve that network; the more that we can invest, the more work are able to do and the better the roads will be.”
Coun Davies said in February:
“Prevention is always better than the cure, and without adequate funding, there will be long-term consequences for the state of our roads, and huge investment needed to bring them back up to standard.”
Malcolm Simms, of the AIA, agrees that local authorities would be able to do more, if more funding was available.
He explains: “In general, authorities across the country are doing a really good job with the resources they have.
“But their hands are tied with access to limited funding - and it’s inconsistent. It goes up and down every year.
“As they only receive single-year budgets in the majority of cases, they can only plan for 12 months. So what they and we are calling for is longer term, consistent investment.
“It’s a bit like the Set for Life game on the National Lottery; would you rather have £3m today and you have to spend it now, or £100,000 a year for 30 years, because at least then you can plan with the income you know you will get.”
Whitehall, meanwhile, helps hand out those sticking plasters with its annual pothole fund – additional money dished out to local authorities to patch the dreaded holes we become so familiar with trying to avoid.
A spokesman for the DfT said: “The government has allocated £1.125bn to local road maintenance, ensuring that thousands of local roads are made safer and easier to use. The £500m dedicated to the potholes fund allows the equivalent of 10 million potholes to be rectified by local councils.”