Potholes. Why it is a moral issue.

19 May

The refrain was often heard during the local elections campaign that the relevant issue to vote on was not partygate, but who could best fill the potholes. There was also some outspoken debate about the level of Council Tax, planning controversies, and the frequency of bin collections. But anger over potholes was also pretty high up on the list of voter concerns.

Now the elections are over, councillors have a responsibility to deal with the priorities of those they represent. It has been claimed, based on FOI requests, that Conservative councils fill more potholes than comparable Labour ones. That may well be true.

According to the 2022 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey, the number of potholes filled in the last year was 1.7 million – the equivalent of one being filled every 19 seconds. That report comes from the asphalt industry but it uses data from local authorities. It found that the backlog of repairs has increased. Roads are only resurfaced, on average, once every 70 years – though there is quite a bit a variation; in London it’s once a generation, in the rest of England once a lifetime. That is why there is such reliance on the temporary expedient of filling potholes. The proposed solution is to resurface roads much more frequently.

The difficulty is that getting all roads resurfaced would be expensive and take a long time – the report mentions an extra £12 billion needing to be spent over nine years. Highway authorities in England and Wales are responsible for over 205,100 miles of roads.

Councils spend £107 million a year fixing potholes. Plus another £20 million a year in compensation for pothole damage to vehicles. But the cost to motorists is much higher than that £20 million figure. A survey for Kwikfit puts the cost of repairs at £1.25 billion. A third of drivers said their vehicles were damaged by potholes in the past year. Very few have managed to get councils to pick up the bill.

So local authorities are failing to maintain their roads properly – leaving a huge bill for others to pick up.

Nothing much has been done about it. Except in Stoke-on-Trent. The Council there has been making dramatic progress since purchasing a new machine from JCB, called the PotholePro. It fixes a pothole in eight minutes – four times faster than existing methods. It also does it at half the cost. Most importantly the repair is also much more effective. Keep in mind the environmental and economic benefit of minimising the time our roads are closed with noisy and dusty machines.

Councillor Daniel Jellyman, The Council’s Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Regeneration and Heritage, comments:

“We are delighted with the success of the JCB PotholePro and the speed at which it is maintaining the city’s road network. To have completed almost three years of work in just over four months is astounding and speaks volumes for this solution over traditional methods.”

Stoke is a Conservative council. Labour-run Coventry is following its lead by embracing this new technology. Several others are expected to make announcements soon. So that is welcome. But what about the other 150 councils in England that are highways authorities? Or the 32 councils in Scotland? Or the 22 in Wales? Or the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland?

Inertia and vested interests come into play. Most councils have a contractor who is paid according to the number of potholes fixed. This creates a perverse incentive not to embrace technology which would result in the repair being permanent rather than a temporary bodge-up. But why wouldn’t the Council insist? It could cancel or renegotiate the contract. The Council’s Director of Highways would have no motive for doing so. He or she would still be paid (usually a six figure salary) for muddling along rather than the extra work involved in changing arrangements.

It really is a scandal. Consider the other costs. At least for motorists, it is usually just financial. But cyclists routinely experience physical injuries due to potholes – including dozens of serious injuries a year and often some deaths. Minor injuries among cyclists are commonplace.

What about the workers? Filling potholes with the methods typically in use is not attractive work. Hand-arm vibration syndrome – also known as “vibration white finger” – is an unpleasant condition caused by working with hand-held vibrating tools. It can be painful and result in numbness making it impossible to carry out simple tasks like doing up buttons. That is often the consequence of toiling away with a pneumatic drill for decades. Big compensation payments are negotiated in extreme cases. But the JCB machine eliminates the risk – the work is done dry and warm from the vehicle’s cab. Why are the trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive not pushing for it?

The Government needs to give local authorities a bit of a nudge on this one. Supposedly there is a legal requirement for councils to obtain best value. The statutory guidance states:

“Best Value authorities are under a general Duty of Best Value to “make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”  Under the Duty of Best Value, therefore, authorities should consider overall value, including economic, environmental and social value, when reviewing service provision. Authorities also have a statutory duty to consider social value for services above specified procurement thresholds at the pre-procurement stage. Authorities can however apply the concept of social value more widely than this and this Guidance recommends that authorities consider social value for other contracts (for example below the threshold or for good and works) where it is relevant to the subject matter of the contract and deemed to be beneficial to do so.”

Obviously, this obligation is being widely disregarded so far as road maintenance is concerned. How could it be enforced? I would suggest that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, should write to the highways authorities stating that she seeks reassurance that the guidance is being adhered to with regard to opportunities provided by new technology. It’s not for her to recommend using a particular product. If a competitor to JCB comes along with something better that is fantastic. But the local authority must be rigorous in showing it is obtaining the best possible value for money. If not, then Baroness Vere should send in hit squads to take over – starting in the areas with the worst results. After all, we put failing schools under new management as “sponsored academies.”

She would probably only need to do this a few times before finding, with Samuel Johnson, that it “concentrated the minds wonderfully” in highways departments elsewhere.

Yet with my sentimental belief in local democracy is it too much to hope that local councillors might also be able to make some progress? They will be well aware from canvassing that the scourge of potholes is not trivial so far as their voters are concerned, but a key political issue. But is it not also a moral issue? We have the gratuitous failure of local authorities to carry out their responsibilities. This failing involves a cost being imposed on others, not just financially, but also of injury and death. It should no longer be shrugged off.

Stephen Greenhalgh: Hammersmith and Fulham has become a borough of missed opportunity

31 Mar

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

Politics is a rough trade. My own career is built on a solid foundation of failure. I spent over ten years in opposition after being elected in a council by-election in January 1996. However, in 2006, after 38 years in opposition apart from a period in minority administration, I led the team that crushed our Labour opponents at the ballot box. We secured a mandate for positive change with nearly 50 per cent of the popular vote, and took control of Hammersmith Town Hall with a huge majority and 33 councillors keen to deliver for our residents. Some of those councillors like Paul Bristow and Greg Smith served in my cabinet and now sit on the green benches and Alex Chalk, who chaired the planning committee with great distinction, sits on the front bench. My political soulmate and successor as council leader, Nick Botterill, is now a cabinet member on Wiltshire County Council. The high point of my political career to date was securing a further mandate in 2010 when we only lost two councillors after four years in control of the town hall where we set a course to cut council tax by three per cent each year whilst delivering better services: High profile round-the-clock beat policing was introduced in our three town centres and crime fell like a stone. Anti-social behaviour in our council estates was challenged for the first time. The physical environment of our borough improved with cleaner streets and greener parks.

In 2014, Hammersmith & Fulham did return to Labour, but it was flattering for me to see that the new Labour administration continued to freeze, or even make a tiny reduction one year, in council tax. However, this is not enough. Our mantra was lower taxes, less waste, and better services. The quality of council services has declined markedly under Labour. The council has a moral and statutory duty to provide social housing which is fit for use, but the Labour administration has failed dismally on this and the recent publication of the Housing Ombudsman’s report has shown that H&F has the highest rate of mismanagement in damp and mould cases in England and the highest rate of maladministration for complaint handling. Council tenants are getting a raw deal.

Many council leaseholders are getting ripped off. For example, in Sulivan Court, leaseholders are being billed nearly £18,000 per flat with conditions that they forfeit their lease if  they fail to pay. Crime is on the rise as the council abolished the highly respected Parks Police and bundled together the few remaining with Street Scene Enforcement officers, Market Inspectors, and Neighbourhood Wardens from the estates, to create an enforcement department armed merely with a stack of fixed penalty notice forms and no powers of arrest. Crime and violent crime in particular is now on the rise.  The council is now wholly reliant on central government for extra policing resources: The Met has received an extra 2,121 officers so far through our police uplift, as part of the 20,000 extra police officers we are recruiting nationally by 2023.

Hammersmith & Fulham is a beautiful residential borough defined by the Thames at its southern and western border. However, it would be helpful if Londoners could cross it once in a while. Instead, we now face six miles of uncrossable water. Hammersmith Bridge, owned by the council has been shut to motorised traffic including buses and ambulances for nearly three years. The Labour council leader is a talented storyteller and has concocted a work of fiction on the Council’s website that absolves his administration of all blame and instead has tried to blame the previous Conservative council despite a statement on September 2nd 2016 that “it remains the case that there are NO issues concerning the structural integrity of Hammersmith Bridge under its current weight restriction.”

The reality is that this Labour council is largely responsible for the Hammersmith Bridge omnishambles: The Council did not do their bit in properly maintaining the bridge and lost expert officer expertise since the collapse of Triborough and Biborough collaboration which was a grotesque act of municipal vandalism on their part.  It is also clear that the Council’s political leadership have not made the reopening of the bridge to cars and buses a political priority. The council does not care about the traffic gridlock in west London but see it as a way of stopping cars coming into their borough and making Hammersmith Bridge open only to pedestrians and cyclists.

The council has refused to supply engineering reports for which we as residents have paid and is refusing to share information with the opposition. The most recent is the Denton report along with the top secret structural engineering reports of 2014/15. Added to this, the Mayor of London has bankrupted TfL so that TfL cannot afford to pay for infrastructure works – and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, dissolved the London Bridges fund in 2016 to spend the money on other Mayoral pet projects. The council still hasn’t agreed a costed plan to remediate the bridge fully. Instead the council has plucked a figure out of the air to carry out much needed stabilisation works so pedestrians and cyclists are able to use the bridge at the very least.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister and Chair of the government’s Hammersmith Bridge Task Force, have had to step in to sort this mess out. The Council wouldn’t even have had Hammersmith Bridge re-opened to pedestrians and bikes had the government not intervened and funded two thirds of the costs as well as pledging two thirds of the costs of its planned restoration and full re-opening by both funding a third directly and providing another third to TfL. It is the Conservative government that has insisted that the Council fully re-open the bridge. Meanwhile, our main and local roads have become clogged up as a result whilst residents face another slap in the face with parking charges now rivalling the West End with hikes to between £5 and £6 an hour – up from £2.20 or £2.80. The streets and the parks are beginning to look scruffy and fly-tipping has become endemic.

Our Conservative administration had a long term vision to create the ‘Borough of Opportunity’ by offering excellent state education and school choice, creating a housing ladder of opportunity with home ownership at its core, and finally, regenerating the most deprived parts of the borough. Sadly, the Labour administration has turned H&F into a Borough of Missed Opportunity. We have shabbier streets full of stationery traffic, neglected parks, and more crime. No new Free Schools or Academies have been opened. London’s developers have decided that the borough is a no go zone and the grand plans to regenerate Earl’s Court and Old Oak have foundered.

The opportunity to create a new vibrant district of West Kensington and Earl’s Court has been missed and instead the borough will at best only see piecemeal development, instead of the thousands of new homes and jobs which could have resulted from the creation of a new district for West London. The even bigger opportunity to deliver a new city for London in Park Royal and Old Oak has been downgraded sadly to an urban district at best with no plans for the huge boost in jobs that the oversite development of the station would have offered. This is particularly tragic given the delays in finalising Crossrail. The Labour leader of the council must take his share of the blame as a paid member of the development corporation for the lack of tangible progress.

We need a new generation of Conservative councillors with a moral mission to deliver better council services, lower council tax, and above all, to create more opportunity for residents to get on in life. Cllr Victoria Brocklebank-Fowler who served in my administration is building a team that will deliver precisely that if elected in May.