No magic money tree, but Britain's pothole problem has reached crisis point


After the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey revealed that one in five roads in England and Wales has just five years life remaining, now is the time for authorities to act, says Wayne Holt.

These days as a driver it is not enough to keep a watchful eye on pedestrians and other road users, we now have to be additionally mindful on the condition of the road surface and the presence of ruts and in particular potholes.

This situation extends across England, Scotland and Wales. I was in Scotland recently and was a passenger in a vehicle which suffered a damaged wheel as a result of a pothole. Who will pick up the bill? The driver, of course.

It comes as no surprise to me to see the latest Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey reveal there is a £556m funding gap between the funds local authorities in England and Wales have, and what they need to spend to bring roads into a reasonable state.

The damning report says that more than 24,400 miles of road have been identified as needing essential maintenance in the next year. Think about that - that’s the driving distance from Design2e’s head office in Cannock to Beijing three-and-a-half times over! Just as disturbingly, 20% of highways have less than five years’ life remaining, up from 12% only two years ago.

Let’s go back to the route of the issue. A pothole is a relatively small hole in the road surface which emerges due to a loss of material. The cause may be material failure, or poor workmanship or the use of inappropriate material in, for example, trench reinstatements.

Unless attended to promptly, traffic will widen and deepen the hole, allowing damaging water ingress into the deeper structural layers and sublayers, increasing the risk of serious accident. 

That might sound a bit dramatic, but the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured because of potholes has tripled in the last ten years. According to statistics, almost 400 cyclists in Great Britain have been killed or seriously injured since 2007 due to poorly maintained roads.

The highways authority has a duty under the Highways Act to take action and repair faults. All highway authorities have a procedure to follow - and a set of performance criteria to meet - when they deal with a reported pothole. At one time, there was a national standard stating what constituted a pothole and how it should be repaired, but that is no longer the case. The Department for Transport has produced guidance on the matter, but there is no legislation.

The maintenance and repair of highways varies greatly between road classification and also highway authority. The timescales from being reported to being repaired can vary from 24 hours for a temporary repair to over 84 days for a permanent repair on an unclassified road.

Local authorities are under increasing financial pressure, while trying to maintain their respective performance targets, when it comes to duty of care for their roads. All that has happened is that these performance targets have been moved to suit the current agenda. It’s a continuous circle - financial pressure increases, the performance targets are amended and, consequently, the standard of our overall infrastructure declines, placing further risk on the road user.

Recently, the Highways Agency released a detailed plan which stated their maintenance budget, in comparison to their improvements budget would reduce, from being approximately like-for-like in 2015-16 to 30% of the capital improvements budget in 2020-21.

All this sounds pretty gloomy - but all parts of the highway maintenance sector, including engineers, contractors and local councillors, know what needs to be done to improve the pothole plague.

Here is my three-point plan for helping to resolve the issue:

  • Our existing infrastructure needs to be repaired in a timely manner before small issues become big problems. As the old adage goes, a stitch in time saves nine.
  • Ensure the work is done to the correct specification using appropriate materials. Do the job correctly once and it shouldn’t need to be done repeatedly, as we often see at the moment. So many pothole problems are the result of a poor repair where material has not been laid properly.
  • Provide clarity to the public. Drivers can see that the roads they use have been getting worse for some time, so statements from local authorities about maintenance expenditure and met targets don’t wash. Local authorities, through their councillors, should communicate openly and honestly with the public on the issues they are dealing with.

There is no magic money tree, but this is a problem which has now reached a critical stage. A safe, well-maintained road network is absolutely crucial to the safety of motorists, and the economic growth of our country.

Britain’s pothole problem has reached crisis point.

Wayne Holt is the executive director at structural and civil engineering design consultancy Design2e.