Following the clocks going back last weekend, another sure sign of the approach of winter comes in the form of a spate of stories in national and local press in recent days regarding that perennial scourge of cyclists and other road users, potholes. While such stories often highlight the potential damage to vehicles, the consequences for cyclists can of course sometimes be fatal.
Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) outlined in a report that “reduced overall funding for local authorities risks worsening highway quality,” adding that in 2011 it had highlighted “a significant but unquantifiable backlog of maintenance work needed to get local highways to a sustainable level.”
The NAO said that cuts in funding for transport-related projects was causing local authorities to reassess budgets and that often it was road maintenance that suffered.
"Against the background of reduced and sometimes uncertain central government funding, the local authorities that we spoke to said that they are having to prioritise and reduce their expenditure on transport," it said.
Quoted on Telegraph.co.uk, transport minister Norman Baker countered criticism by the NAO that the current transition to make local authorities increasingly responsible for paying for maintenance was causing confusion.
"Local roads are the responsibility of local highway authorities and they are best placed to use their knowledge and experience to decide how to prioritise funding across the range of services they deliver,” he maintained.
"This Government is giving councils over £3 billion for road maintenance from 2011/12 to 2014/15, as well as investing £6 million for the highways maintenance efficiency programme to get the most out of investment in this area."
Despitre Mr Baker's assurances, stories at local level show that councils are struggling to balance their budgets when it comes to road maintenance.
In the West Midlands, Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council has been warned by an opposition politician that it risks the no doubt unwelcome accolade of becoming the “the pothole capital of the Black Country” due to a proposed £800,000 cut in its road maintenance budget.
Quoted in the Express & Star, Conservative councillor Patrick Harley, shadow cabinet member for transport, told a council meeting: “It will cost taxpayers more because the bill for filling in potholes will be rising.”
However, the Labour controlled council’s cabinet member for transport and public safety, Judy Foster, insisted that despite the budget cuts, it would prioritise the repair of potholes.
“We are not going to take anything out of the potholes budget. They will continue to be addressed,” she insisted.
Over in East London, Barking & Dagenham Council has warned of what local newspaper The Enquirer describes as a ‘maintenance time bomb’ amid calls by the local authority for central government to provide more money to carry out street repairs on those roads in the borough not belonging to the Transport for London Road Network.
“Our residents pay plenty of money out in road tax [sic] each year, and it’s about time they saw some of that cash being spent on improving their local streets,” explained councillor Mick McCarthy, Cabinet Member for Environment. “We also argue that it is more cost effective to invest in planned works rather than reactive maintenance, which is expensive and has to be re-done quickly.”
The problem of where councils are supposed to find funding for road maintenance isn't confined to England.
BBC Wales says that the problem of potholes on the principality’s roads has been increasing in recent years, citing a survey from the Asphalt Industry Alliance which says that the backlog of potholes in the country will take 17 years to clear, compared to nine years in London and 11 years elsewhere in England.
Among the reasons cited for the scale of the problem in Wales are the high proportion of rural roads, which are seen as a lower priority compared to urban ones, plus less frequent complete resurfacing of roads there.
Welsh local authorities are borrowing £172 million from the Welsh Government over the next three years to help pay for road maintenance work under the Local Government Borrowing Initiative, with the first £60 million of that money already allocated.
While the Welsh Local Government Association insists that the country’s roads will be in a “reasonable condition” over the coming months, it does acknowledge that the poor state of repair of roads in Wales represents a "significant problem."
Meanwhile, back in England, Plymouth newspaper The Herald is employing ‘Pothole Pete’ – a hard hat-wearing Playmobil figure standing a little over a foot tall in his plastic boots – to front its campaign warning of the danger.
Pete even has his own Twitter feed so you can follow his pothole-related adventures on the streets of the Devon city, with his tweets including details of how to contact him to get him to come out and inspect potholes.
Remember that you can report any potholes you see via CTC’s Fill That Hole website, which will pass the details on to the relevant authority.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.