John Walsh: 'I thought the roads in Kazakhstan were bad. But potholes in London...'

Tales of the City

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Welcome to London. You are, let us say, an important businessman from the Emirates, flying for the first time into Heathrow for talks about investing in a factory here. A black courtesy limo has been sent to pick you up and zoom you east on the M4. Your first glimpses of the Big Smoke – the stupendous GlaxoSmithKlein building, the hilarious plaster cows on the old Express Dairies HQ – are favourable. Then your driver comes off Hogarth Lane and, rather than go round the roundabout, hits the Chiswick Flyover. The next few minutes are a ghastly, jittery switchback ride of bumps and lurches and sickening thuds from the wheels, as your limo encounters one of the worst collection of potholes in Britain. By the time the car has settled onto the Great West Road, you (the distinguished foreigner) are thinking to yourself: "Jeez, I thought Albania was bad. I thought the roads in Kazakhstan were pretty rubbish, I thought the interior of the Turks and Caicos Islands left something to be desired. But this ... " And you'd be right. It's as though nobody has given a thought to mending this crucial little artery of west London since the Blitz. This is surely not how we want visitors to discover the capital.

Don't kid yourself that first impressions aren't important. They're vital. When Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator, visited New York in 1995 to celebrate the 50th birthday of the United Nations, he was pointedly ignored by the city's Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. In retaliation, he told the press: "I wouldn't vote for your mayor ... not just because he didn't invite me to dinner, but because on my way into town from the airport there were such enormous potholes." You could practically hear Giuliani wince at this low blow. To be criticised by a visiting old Commie is bad enough, without having him bitch about the roads under your jurisdiction as well. Anyone who's ever visited Havana knows the roads there are terminally pocked and pitted with holes full of leprous, iridescent water. For Castro to be able to sneer at New York for its infrastructure was a real slap in the face.

London, however, has become almost as bad. Every Londoner I know, from Dulwich to Deptford, tells stories about the ulcerous craters and perilous wheel-traps that sprang up malevolently this winter, as the combination of freezing temperatures and rumbling lorries trashed the road surfaces of the metropolis. But the state of roads all over the nation is shocking now. Local authorities in the UK currently pay out £50m every year in compensation to motorists, when it's proved that the council have fallen down on road repair work. But that's a grain on a sand dune compared to the £2.8bn it costs British motorists every year to get their cars mended after hole-in-the-road-related upsets: tyre explosions, dented wheels, suspension failures and buggered springs.

Any driver who has suffered the jolting shock when your car hits a pothole at speed should check out, where victims are encouraged to seek compensation and where, like 12-step programmers, they tell their sad stories: about the nasty one on the M1 junction at Banstead, Surrey which caused a puncture and damaged a wheel, the blown front tyre in East Lothian caused by an archipelago of holes, the vicious one in Portland Road, Birmingham which scuppered two shock absorbers. Sufferers describe the sickening sound of alloy wheels scraping the asphalt like flints striking sparks, and the tragic sight of three cars, one after another, pulling over to the hard shoulder in Reigate to investigate gaping holes in their Firestone radials.

To achieve any kind of redress, you have to take photographs of the offending pothole and send them to your local council, accompanied by a level of exhaustive circumstantial detail about your encounter that would not disgrace a murder enquiry. Sometimes it works. The website currently carries loud huzzahs for Norfolk Council, whose workmen move with what passes in council circles for greased lightning, filling in dangerous holes 48 hours after the alarm is raised.

We can't, however, expect any big acknowledgement for the expensive Road Tax that we motorists have paid over the last decades. There won't be a resurfacing programme any time soon. These days, the average frequency at which an English road is overhauled is 65 years (81 in Wales). So don't hold your breath. Unless you're driving straight into the really horrible hole in Surrey, where Pirbright hits the A3 ...

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