Compensation claims over poor roads rise

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The Independent Online
LOCAL authorities are facing dramatic rises in compensation payments for the poor condition of roads and pavements.

Urban areas have been the worst affected with councils blaming a more litigious public rather than a deterioration in the standard of maintenance, but even rural counties have seen a doubling of payments in three years.

Liverpool, which paid out pounds 2.4m in compensation in 1991, cancelled its insurance cover following suspicions that the company involved was not being rigorous enough in fighting claims.

The city has since appointed its own staff to handle public complaints and reported a recent fall in claims after the investigation of certain multiple applications from a small number of families. Areas of Liverpool are zoned according to their claims record as they would be for theft or burglary.

Pat Robbins, assistant county surveyor at Suffolk County Council, reported that the volume of claims is rising but their individual size is falling. The council saw its insurance premium for rural roads outside Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft rise from pounds 130,000 in 1988 to pounds 236,000 last year.

Total claims are believed to cost about pounds 400,000 for the county, or more than pounds 1.30 for each resident. 'There is no doubt that people have become much more ready to claim. We are even getting claims for damage to glasses whereas before people would seldom bother,' Mr Robbins said.

Most authorities resist a proportion of claims with a success rate of about one-in-two. But with the average bill for opposing a claim estimated at pounds 1,600, there is a temptation to pay out quickly on smaller amounts.

Claims have risen so much in Manchester that the authority is doubling the number of its road inspectors to try to pick up faults early. The budget for compensation has been exceeded following a 30 per cent rise over the past year. Expenditure is believed to be not far short of pounds 1m.

Sinclair McLeod, chief engineer of Manchester City Council, said: 'We are following the Americans and people are getting litigious. Many of the defects are caused by the activities of public utilities and their contractors in not reinstating the surface.'

The overall rise in compensation was one factor in the difficulties experienced by Municipal Mutual Insurance which had 95 per cent of local authority business. MMI, the country's ninth largest insurer, said last month that it was to transfer its business to the Eurosafe group of continental mutual insurance companies after heavy losses in 1990 and 1991.

Local authority road spending has been virtually static at about pounds 1bn a year since national figures began to be compiled in the late 1970s. Last year roads expenditure in England and Wales outside London varied from a low of pounds 1,700 per kilometre in Powys, mid Wales, to pounds 12,700 in Birmingham. Spending in the capital's urban area was from pounds 8,200 in Brent to pounds 108,700 in the City.

Most claims relate to the footways, many of which are maintained by district authorities. However, there are also increasing compensation payments in relation to damage and injury caused to cyclists and motorcyclists as a result of poor road repairs.