Feature: how the pothole funding black hole is disconnecting communities

Forget Brexit, the most emotive topic in offices and pubs across the UK at the moment is the state of Britain’s roads, and in particular the very visible pothole problem. It’s estimated that one in five local roads will become unfit for use within five years, and with funding stretched, communities are suffering. Thomas Barrett reports.

During the recent winter months, the UK was hit with the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma, and the prolonged period of cold and wet weather left a receipt in the form of potholes.

When water hits a road it’s stored in pockets in the asphalt concrete, when this freezes, the water expands and causes cracks which creates the holes.

In the UK it’s estimated there are over two million of them. The Asphalt Industry Alliance annual survey revealed that the pothole repair bill in England alone currently stands at £11.8bn and is set to rise to £14bn by 2019.

Last month, transport secretary Chris Grayling announced a £100m fund to help repair potholes and other storm damage, which according to Cllr Philip Atkins, County Councils Network spokesman for housing, planning, and infrastructure, barely scratches the surface. He believes the announcement of funding from central government was disingenuous.

‘It must be pointed out that only half of this was actually new money with the remainder already announced,’ he says.

‘And all against a backdrop of significant reductions in overall Government funding for councils, which has led to more and more money being taken out of road maintenance budgets.’

Cllr Atkins also believes that county businesses make a huge contribution to the economy yet don’t receive their fair share of infrastructure funding. ‘Their residents generate a £54bn tax revenue surplus for the treasury,’ he says.

It’s a situation that has left councils up and down the country hamstrung.

‘Counties are doing what they can with a dwindling pot of money, fixing thousands of potholes every year,’ says Cllr Atkins.

‘But without a long-term and sustainable investment in the national road network, our key economic arteries will simply crumble and undermine efforts to grow and strengthen the national economy.’

Parvis Khansari, Chair of Adept, who are the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, agrees.

‘Adept wants there to be a focus on maintaining roads to the appropriate standards and avoid repairing potholes altogether,’ he says.

‘This will only be achieved if the previous accumulation, built up over decades is resolved through a national programme of investment in local roads.

‘Prevention is much more economical than cure, we want to work with the Government to remove the backlog and ensure funding for road maintenance is sufficient enough to support asset management strategies.’

Fill that hole

‘£100m is a drop in the ocean,’ says Sam Jones, campaigns officer for CyclingUK. They claim that potholes have contributed to the deaths or serious injury of 390 cyclists in the past ten years.

They’ve also counted the cost of potholes to the UK purse, and through freedom of information requests, they’ve found that 156 local authorities spent £43.3m on legal costs and compensation pay-outs due to potholes during 2013-2017, equating to an average of £277,707 for each local authority.

They also estimate that potholes have cost the economy a further £10.7m over the last five years, once costs for the NHS, police time and lost working hours are considered.

‘We’re in a terrible situation where there’s not enough funding for the roads we use every day,’ says Sam.

CyclingUK has created an app called Fill That Hole which allows people to report potholes to local authorities. They argue that it’s not always clear who has responsibility for a particular stretch of road, and they believe their app simplifies things for road users and for councils. ‘It’s been a runaway success,’ he says.

‘It’s citizen reporting. It’s there to help councils and not to vilify them,’

Sam believes that in many cases, the funding gap has left councils forced between keeping roads in a good state or social care.

‘We’re told roads are part of our critical infrastructure, can we afford to let our roads get worse?’

The black stuff

In Dumfries, Scottish start-up MacRebur has developed an innovative solution which they believe could kill two birds with one stone for councils by taking their plastic waste and using it to fill in the roads.

Inside the asphalt concrete that is laid on roads is bitumen, and as soon as the bitumen is exposed to oxygen, it starts to degrade. Historically bitumen contains a lot of sulphur which slows the degrading down, but in recent years the technology around oil extraction has improved.

Oil companies can now extract the sulphur from the bitumen, which means the bitumen degrades much quicker than it used to.

Macrebur replaces the lost nutrients in bitumen with plastic, which they say creates a more durable and longer lasting road surface.

‘A lot of people thought they would see a bottle top or an old plastic bag hanging out of the road and they were concerned with microplastics being washed out of the road and into our rivers,’ says Toby McCartney, an engineer at MacRebur.

‘But our plastics fully homogenise into the bitumen so they are no longer plastics when they enter the road,’

Mr McCartney says that when you see a road that’s laid 20 years ago its likely to be in better condition than the road that’s laid two years ago because the bitumen quality was much better. He believes their product the same results or better and a quality, longer lasting road.

They already have 13 councils on board, including Gloucester, Enfield and Dumfries & Galloway.

‘Councils save money because in the long term we use their waste for their road. Councils have a big problem of what to do with the waste, we take some of it off their hands, and they have less maintenance to do. There are cost savings throughout.’

Figures from the RAC reveal that in the first three months of 2018 they’ve been called out to more than double the number of vehicles that have been damaged by potholes, compared to the same period in 2017.

With the problem only getting worse and the amount of funding from central government not meeting the demands of councils, Sam Jones of CyclingUK believes it’s having an effect on communities that can’t be quantified with numbers.

‘Roads are built to connect people to places they need to go, and if they’re not in a decent state of repair then they are failing in their purpose and that can only be to the detriment of communities.’



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