Alastair Dalton: Could pothole crisis lead to congestion charging?

Winter could be crunch time for road repair funding, writes Alastair Dalton.
Jedburgh and district councillor Jim Brown on the C33 roadJedburgh and district councillor Jim Brown on the C33 road
Jedburgh and district councillor Jim Brown on the C33 road

It’s been Scotland’s proper winter for several years, and the snow, ice and sub-zero conditions have once more exposed the fragility of the country’s road network.

No driver will have failed to notice potholes opening up and worsening pretty much wherever they travel.

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On a trip this week, I was shocked to see the state of the trunk road network, such as on dual carriageway stretches of the A9 between Dunblane and Perth.

I mention that because such roads have traditionally been kept in the best condition, which is just as well because of the extra dangers of hitting a rut at 70mph rather than 30mph.

But things are equally terrible on smaller roads, such as a huge pothole I noticed a few weeks ago on a roundabout near Ibrox in Glasgow.

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Commuters will know such hazards so well they will have simply added the careful navigation needed to their daily drive.

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Things are often just as bad for pedestrians, with potholes and uneven surfaces on pavements posing a serious trip risk for the elderly and others unsteady on their feet.

A fall can mean a permanent loss of mobility and even significantly reduced life expectancy for some.

But, if anything, it’s a surprise things aren’t worse, since spending by councils on the non-trunk roads they are responsible for has been slashed by one fifth over the last seven years.

A Local Government Benchmarking Framework study, which reported the figure this week, also pointed out that road conditions had remained largely unchanged despite less being spent.

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However, that finding – from the last published official survey by roads chiefs in 2015 – is now somewhat historic, and may not reflect conditions even before this winter’s onslaught.

An update from public spending watchdog Audit Scotland is due in June.

There have always been, and always will be, many competing priorities for council spending, and it is not surprising that other areas such as schools and social care are protected at the expense of road maintenance.

The stark truth is that more potholes in the road will be seen as a necessary inconvenience when money is tight.

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The problem is that drivers don’t pay directly for the upkeep of roads, which are funded by local authorities, and the Scottish Government in the case of motorways and other trunk roads.

Income from vehicle tax discs and duty on petrol and diesel go direct to the UK Government, which isn’t even responsible for the roads network north of the Border.

When passengers travel by train, they pay for each journey, with part of the fare used to help maintain the rail network, and ticket prices are higher when demand is greatest at peak hours.

However, drivers pay nothing extra – however many trips they make, whatever the distance and whatever the time of day.

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Perhaps the thorny issue of road maintenance is providing another reason, on top of dealing with congestion, for a fundamental change in how they are funded.

Up to now, congestion charging has proved politically unacceptable, as Edinburgh City Council found a decade ago.

But if we end the winter with our roads in a considerably worse condition than before, and no more money to repair them without significant cutbacks elsewhere, could that be time to think again?