Fringe Box



Opinion: The Politics of Potholes

Published on: 21 Apr, 2023
Updated on: 23 Apr, 2023

A Guildford pothole.

When local politicians knock on doors, seeking votes at election time, potholes are often the complaint most frequently raised. Roads are a county council responsibility but even during borough council elections, candidates are asked what they will do about it.

Here Bernard Quoroll, an experienced local government officer who has served as chief executive or senior figure in six local authorities, gives his informed view of the subject…

By Bernard Quoroll

The City of Baltimore once thought they had found the answer – a scheme in which citizens could buy their loved ones a pothole repair gift, complete with a greetings card sent to the lucky beneficiary!

Sadly, it is no joke. Potholes are dangerous. They destroy vehicles and put people in hospital. But anyone who has worked in local government knows that, come budget time, expenditure on highway safety ranks much lower in the pecking order, in the competition for resources with other services.

See also: Perhaps We Should Worry More about What is Below Our Wheels Than Above Our Heads?

Estimates vary but the average service life of an asphalt road is around 20 years, a period which can be extended by regular attention to potholes and better supervision of the damage caused by commercial vehicles. After that, a road is likely to need reconstruction at a substantially greater cost.

County highway authorities don’t even carry out regular inspections on the scale that they once used to. Rather than employing people to “walk the highways”, they rely on us to report traffic hazards. One reason for this is an unstated desire to reduce insurance claims for breach of their statutory duty to maintain a safe highway system. (If they don’t look, they don’t find).

Very occasionally, central government releases pothole repair funds to highway authorities to make it look as if they are responsive to the problem. But think about that for a moment. Is it really the best use of a minister’s time to concern him or herself with potholes in Guildford?

Potholes are just a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Local authorities everywhere now have insufficient funds to undertake minimum statutory duties. Many are bordering on bankruptcy. They suffered the largest reduction of funding of any public body post the 2008 financial crisis. It has led some to attempt to maintain services by crazy property investment schemes whilst central government, the cause of the malaise looks the other way.

Even the idea of central government releasing pothole money to local councils is risible. It tells us that we have one of the most centralised systems of government in the world. It is one in which local accountability and knowledge is sidelined in favour of short-term political expediency.

The extent of the problem is not nearly limited to potholes. It affects almost all of the hundreds of services which councils provide.

Local government has to stop pretending that it is “coping” while those services crumble away. On the current trajectory, local government will soon no longer be local or governmental but local administration at best.

In that sense perhaps we should see potholes as just the tip of an iceberg!

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *