Pothole nation: Snow damage adds to £10bn bill to repair Britain's crumbling roads

Jonathan Brown
Thursday 04 February 2010 01:01

They are the bone-jangling, sump-scraping, ankle-twisting scourge of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Even The Beatles demonised them in song. And they've got much worse.

One of the coldest winters in recent memory has resulted in a 50 per cent deterioration in the state of the nation's roads and a dramatic rise in the number of potholes. The taxpayer faces a repair bill costing hundreds of millions of pounds for the past year alone – adding to £10bn-worth of outstanding pothole repairs.

With a month of winter remaining and the full extent of the damage still being assessed, it is estimated that the total number of craters in Britain's 246,000 miles of secondary routes (those that aren't motorways or A-roads) has risen to 1.6 million – an increase of 700,000 in two years. The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England and Wales, has written to the Department of Transport seeking £100m of emergency funds to carry out the most urgent repairs. North Yorkshire County Council proposes a 2.94 per cent rise in council tax to help fix the problem.

With one pothole to be found every 120 yards, it will take an estimated 15 years to remedy the problem.

David Weeks, director of the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), claims that Britain's network is in danger of sinking to "Third World" levels. The short cold snap of 2009 resulted in a 30 per cent increase in the number of potholes, costing £47m in compensation claims for injury and damage. This year's sustained freeze is expected to produce even more alarming figures.

"Just go and look at any road and you will see," said Mr Weeks. "For too long the network in Britain has been at the bottom of the political agenda. Local authorities have concentrated on siphoning off money from the roads budget to pay for vote-winning services such as education. But it is like buying new furniture for your house before you fix the leaking roof."

The figures are based on the reports of 65 per cent of the local authority highways departments in England and Wales, which responded to an annual AIA survey due to be published next month.

Potholes open up when water seeps into small cracks and then expands on freezing. The freezing process exerts enormous pressure capable of splitting the bitumen surface wide open. The freeze-thaw cycle, in which severe nighttime frosts give way to above-zero daytime temperatures, allows melting water to penetrate deeper into the road surface – the "nightmare scenario" currently experienced by highway engineers.

The AA's president, Edmund King, has called for 2p a litre from fuel taxes to be diverted into a pothole fund to put right the damage. "Potholes affect all road users from cyclists to bus passengers. They are a particular menace at night on dark rural roads as often the driver is unaware of the pothole until the damage is done," he said.

Individual councils face enormous bills. North Yorkshire estimates it must find £20m. The cost of repairing Birmingham's roads after two severe winters reached £6.1m this week, as pressure grew on all local authorities to cut their budgets. The Welsh Assembly has announced £2.75m of emergency funding to fill its councils' potholes.

No one knows the hazards of potholes more intimately than those who travel on two wheels. The UK's national cyclists organisation, CTC, launched fillthathole.org.uk three years ago asking members to report the most dangerous potholes. Since then it has had more than 27,000 responses. The organisation received its highest-ever number of reports in January.

Damaged roots: How salt is threatening Britain's roadside trees

*They may have survived the ravages of disease, pollution and the whirr of developers' chainsaws, but Britain's roadside trees have been imperilled by the Arctic winter.

At the height of the big freeze in January, 200,000 tonnes of grit or rock salt were used to de-ice Britain's roads and keep the country moving. But it is feared that the effects of the salt dissolving into the ground and poisoning the roots could have a damaging long-term effect leading to the loss of prize specimens.

Experts are urging councils to avoid piling up snow and slush around the base of trees in an effort to limit the damage. Nick Eden, director of the Arboricultural Association, said: "Once the salt goes into the soil where the tree is rooted it acts in a fairly toxic manner which is bad for the tree. We would never advocate that we don't salt the road but what we recommend is that councils use the minimum recommended amount."

Among those species likely to be worst hit is the London plane, traditionally sited beside roads because of its tolerance to pollution. Although the effects could take several summers to appear, the first sign of damage could be a reduced number of leaves appearing this spring, said Mr Eden.

Jonathan Brown

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