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Funding cuts and poor winters mean more defects - but DfT says its up to councils to allocate cash they’re given

Councils in England have warned that a £10.5 billion backlog of road repairs meaning that local  authorities may have to forget about repairing defects such as potholes on some rural roads altogether. The Department for Transport insists though that it has made more money available for local road maintenance.

According to a BBC News report, the Local Government Association (LGA) says that a succession of poor winters plus cuts in funding and have left councils overwhelmed, meaning all they can do is seek to patch up roads where possible.

Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s Economy and Transport Board told the BBC: “Unless something changes, we risk seeing large swathes of Britain’s road network dangerously strewn with potholes and becoming so unsafe they will need to be shut completely.”

But the DfT said it was up to councils to prioritise their spending and insisted it had made money available for repair work.

“The government is providing over £3.4bn in this parliament and over £5.8bn in the next for local highways maintenance,” said a DfT spokesperson.

“It is the responsibility of authorities to manage their highway assets and to ensure that they have appropriate contingencies in place to deal with any severe weather that may occur from time to time.”

The BBC’s report focused on Cornwall where the local road network, often comprising country lanes, provides an essential transport link for industries such as agriculture and tourism that are the lifeblood of the local economy.

Bert Biscoe, Cornwall County Council’s cabinet member for transport, said: “The problem is that for 100 years we’ve been maintaining the roads to the very best standards we can.

“We’ve lived off the fat of that. But now we’re squeezed in terms of council tax and we’re being starved of resources.

“We’re going to have to consider withdrawing maintenance from the rural road network. If we withdraw we will be pulling the legs out from under the Cornish economy.”

One problem highlighted is that constant patching up of repairs, rather than relaying the road, does nothing to address the long-term damage being done to roads beneath the surface, storing up greater problems in the future.

“The mixture of really severe cold and wet winters has got really into the fabric of the road. The water table has risen,” explained Simon Deacon, who is operations director for Cormac, the contractor which repairs Cornwall’s roads.

“That breaks the road down. The weather has exposed the underinvestment of the last few years,” he added.

Away from Cornwall, the issue of potholes is making local newspaper headlines throughout England.

In East Sussex, council workmen repaired a large pothole in Telham after 11 vehicles were reported to have been damaged while being driven over it in a matter of minutes.

Within days of the pothole being filled in, however, it had reappeared, causing even more vehicles to be damaged, reports the Rye and Battle Observer.

Roger Williams, head of highways at East Sussex County Council, promised to make “more permanent repairs” to the pothole, but added: “Although we are doing our best to deal with potholes, the amount of rain we have had in recent weeks has made carrying out permanent repairs difficult.”

In Buckinghamshire, meanwhile, the 2012/13 saw a huge rise in pothole claims against the county council, reports the Thame Gazette.

During the year, 1,139 claims were made compared to 434, but only 13 succeeded. The newspaper said that eight in ten claims were rejected on the basis that the council had not been notified of the defect prior to the damage to the vehicle happening.

While potholes can be an inconvenience to motorists, at time resulting in costly repairs, they can be lethal to cyclists and organisations such as the AA and IAM advise drivers to be aware that bike riders may have to swerve to avoid such hazards.

Last month, a Hertfordshire cyclist lost his front teeth and suffered bruising to his teeth after hitting a pothole while he rode to work, reports the Herts and Essex Observer.

Barry Felstead, aged 54, told the newspaper: “I travel the same way everyday but I hadn’t noticed the hole before because the street lights are off at that time so it’s always dark.

“I was just lucky that there wasn’t a car coming otherwise it could have been much worse. Someone else might not be so lucky.”

The poor state of many roads, coupled with January’s record rainfall, creates an additional hazard for cyclists, since puddles can conceal potholes.

In February 2010, army officer Jonathan Allen died when he was struck by a lorry as he swerved to avoid a big, water filled pothole as he rode home on his bike in the dark.

The council had inspected the pothole the week before his death but decided it did not warrant immediate attention, filling it in two days after the fatal crash.

A coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.

CTC’s Fill That Hole iPhone app, given £30,000 in funding by the DfT in December to go towards a revamp and development of an Android version, allows cyclists and other road users to highlight defects that need remedying to the relevant local 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.