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Analysis | Potholes? Fix the cause, not the symptom

Pothole 3x2

If all the patients on a GP’s register kept returning to surgery with ever worsening coughs, how long would it be before the doc stopped bulk buying lozenges and looked for an underlying cause to treat?

If the doctor was a cabinet minister, the answer may be decades, after the Government this month awarded £50M to 100 councils to tackle potholes on their roads.

The move is the latest in a list of ad hoc announcements of road repair cash.

But even with the Government boasting about the money it is throwing at potholes, a recent poll of councils by materials trade body the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) found that the carriageway maintenance backlog would still take 14 years to clear at a mind-boggling one-off cost of £11.8bn.

In fact, despite all the words and money from government, this backlog is up from £8.5bn in 2009.

This is because Tory ministers – and Labour ones before them – have been repeatedly treating the symptoms rather than the cause of poor local road quality.

“A newly built road has a time limit,” said AIA director David Weeks. “After about 20 years, a reasonably trafficked road will start to get hairline cracks.

“Water will then seep in to these cracks then freeze and expand. Particles will break up and you will get a small hole that turns to a big hole.”

Once you start to see potholes on a road, you really are into a game of whack-a-mole, repairing individual blemishes on a surface you know is past its best and will keep generating new ones. As much money as you throw at it, the problem will keep getting bigger.

“The road should be regularly maintained,” said Weeks. “Every 20 years you need to scrape off the old surface and put on a new one.”

He estimates that resurfacing such as this can be done for £15 per square metre – about a quarter of the cost of filling in potholes.

But despite the logic of addressing the cause of poor quality roads, councils – under the threat of legal claims from drivers affected by surface dips, and constrained by the constant short-term pots of money available – have become used to targeting the symptom.

Local Government Association transport spokesman Martin Tett said councils fixed a pothole every 15 seconds last year amid plummeting roads maintenance budgets.

“Local authorities are proving remarkably efficient in how they use this diminishing funding pot but they remain trapped in a frustrating cycle that will only ever leave them able to patch up those roads that are inadequate,” he said.

In 2014, the government pledged that almost £1bn would be spent repairing local roads in each of the next six years. Weeks called for this money to be redistributed to allow £3bn to be spent immediately, generating large, economically advantageous resurfacing work packages.

Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner also called for a new vision from central government.

“The scale of the problem is so vast,” he said. “An effective model could be to fund the huge cost of the work that’s required from savings in future years from not having to repeat work.”

A one-off resurfacing project, coordinated with utility companies to maximise the time before the roads need to be dug up again, could be funded from council reserves, according to Reisner, and repaid when money isn’t subsequently needed for legal claims and pothole filling.

Perhaps technology can also help break the pothole cycle.

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University are developing smart scanning technology to detect the early signs of potholes and determine their severity.

And a grant awarded to the University of Leeds by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council last year will help develop a drone that can autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes.

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