During the period I was council leader spending on roads and pavements quadrupled from a very low base of £5.9 million each year to more than £23m in what was a genuine all-party attempt to tackle the problem. Indeed, parties jostled in each budget to have the highest figure for road maintenance – no bad thing.
So why don’t they get fixed? Firstly, there are so many factors and organisations involved. Most people think that it is just down to the council, but almost our entire public infrastructure has been renewed and most of that involved public utilities digging up our roads and pavements.
With gas, electricity and water networks needing replaced and with our pressing need for improved broadband, a price has been paid in terms of the degradation of our roads and pavements. The fact that we have been through the biggest economic downturn in modern times has also understandably introduced reductions in spending on roads, around 20 per cent according to recent reports.
Edinburgh has 13,000 utility works each year. Of those it is estimated that only just over 70 per cent of those have been done properly in Edinburgh according to the latest figures – and the survey is far from perfect. Remarkably, that’s an improvement on years gone by. Nearly 30 per cent failure works out at four failures for every mile of road in Edinburgh. This work is vital – who doesn’t want clean water, a safe gas supply or better broadband? The utilities have risen to that challenge very well, but with it has come untold damage to existing roads.
Take the famous story of the Forth Bridge being constantly painted. But rather than the paint just peeling off, imagine someone was at the back of the bridge actually scraping it off. That’s the challenge councils face. Roads and pavements do not on their own deteriorate quickly. However, once the surface is broken by roadworks, the deterioration can be very rapid – especially given a bad winter. Reinstatements are only guaranteed for three years, thereafter responsibility for repairing them transfers to councils.
Moderating this is the office of the Scottish Road Works Commissioner. Set up in 2005, I thought it was a great idea. It has overseen improvements in the coordination or roadworks, and of course the proportion of satisfactory reinstatements has risen, but all of those works that were previously shoddy are still deteriorating, and it is councils that are left holding the can. I have studied the Commissioner’s website very hard and this is not a campaigning organisation. You can ask for the quarterly reports that it produces, but they are not published on its website. When it comes to roadworks, performance isn’t publicly trumpeted in a way that will shame utilities and expose shoddy work. There are just two media releases in 2017. I am sure there are many genuine people working hard there, but the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘teapot’ spring to mind when faced with the huge challenge of fixing our roads and pavements.
The results can be a real challenge for car drivers or public transport users like me, but the issue is far more serious for cyclists. Hit a pothole in a car or a bus and you are unlikely to have a serious accident. Hit one on a bike and it could be a life-changing event.
With the council trying to keep spending up in the traditionally sensitive areas of schools, child protection and social care, finding significant new money for roads and pavements looks almost impossible. The council is trying, but even if it finds more cash it faces the challenge caused by utility works that have undermined and broken up too many roads in almost every street in the city. Sadly, only very, very significant new cash and proper reinstatements by utilities as well will end the scourge of potholes any time soon.