Councils call for Central Government action as potholes reach crisis point

Road MaintenanceSwathes of Britain’s road network risks becoming permanently strewn with potholes unless Government invests now in proper resurfacing, according to the Local Government Association.

New research shows that last year highways teams fixed 2.2 million potholes, 500,000 more than the year before. However, despite their best efforts the backlog in repairs is growing longer, now estimated at £10.5 billion, and one-in-five roads are classed as being in ‘poor condition’.

The annual ALARM survey of council transport bosses reported the average English authority was £6.2 million short of what it needed to properly maintain its roads, up from £5.3 million in 2011. It also found the road damage cost to councils of last year’s flooding was £338 million. 

Compensation costs

Compounding matters is the spiralling cost of compensation to drivers whose vehicles get damaged by potholes. Councils paid out £32 million last year, 50 per cent more than 2011. 

The Local Government Association (LGA) is warning that should councils, which are already bearing the brunt of public sector cuts including a reduction in their highways maintenance budgets, be stripped of even more funding many may find it impossible to keep on top of road repairs. It’s calling on Government to free up existing money and invest it in resurfacing the current network. This will not only allow councils to pay for resurfacing projects to make roads safer and save billions of pounds in the long term – reactive repairs are 20 times more expensive than laying a good quality surface which lasts for many years – but also boost jobs and growth in the short term. A good quality surface is also far more resistant to flood and ice damage.

Return on investment

A Localis report last month showed Government could be getting 2.5 times the return on transport investment if it gave local authorities more freedoms and funding flexibility. It recommended the abolition of the Highways Agency and replacing it with sub-regional bodies which better know their areas and can make the most of their funding.

Cllr Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s Economy and Transport Board, said: “Keeping roads safe is one of the most important jobs councils do and it’s testament to this that over the past year they’ve fixed more than two million potholes. Highways teams across the country have been out in force over the past few months assessing the impact of freezing weather and widespread flooding, and many councils have invested in new technology and initiatives to try and tackle the latest batch of potholes.


However, decades of underfunding by Whitehall, severe winters and recent widespread flooding has left large swathes of our roads in disrepair with many councils struggling to move beyond simply patching up a deteriorating network. Despite our best efforts, things and getting worse and councils are now are also contending with cuts to roads maintenance funding and spiralling compensation costs for pothole damage.


We’re now facing a bill of £10.5 billion to bring our roads up to scratch. Unless something changes we risk swathes of Britain’s road network becoming dangerously strewn with potholes, particularly if flooding and severe winters become more common. Councils need increased and consistent funding to invest in the widespread resurfacing projects which our network desperately needs if we’re to see a long-term improvement. Notions that this can be paid for by council efficiency savings and smarter use of money are deeply unrealistic.   

“Redirecting funding into road maintenance would also offer an instant boost to growth, improve road safety and save billions of pounds down the line from the current false economy of reactive repairs which many councils are trapped in. Thousands of jobs in the construction and supply sector would be created immediately and there would be many mid-term economic benefits by reducing the cost to business caused by the current state of many roads.”

Whitehall underspend

Last year, the Treasury announced Whitehall departments spent about £6.7 billion less than expected during 2011/12. The Department for Transport reportedly underspent by about £500 million. There was also a £2.34 billion capital underspend on infrastructure projects across government.

Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, has also asked each government department to set aside cash reserves worth five per cent of their budgets, or identify programmes that can be cut to provide the money, to pay for new initiatives or deal with unforeseen events. For the Department for Transport this would be about £650 million. 

Further information
More potholes than Daffodils this spring. Read Philip Johnston’s blog for the Telegraph here

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