Issue 152: 2018 05 03: A bump in the road

3 May 2018

A Bump in the Road 

Keep your eyes on the carriageway

by J R Thomas

These are not happy times to reach the top of the slippery pole of politics.  We live in an era and with technology where the voice of the populace grows ever louder, and more immediate, and angry.  At the same time government budgets are stretched, special interest groups are more powerful, and politicians are bewildered, so it seems, by the noise and the chaos.  Not a good time to become a minister, let alone a Secretary of State.  And particularly, Ms Rudd, though it is a bit late to say it now, to be the sort of Secretary of State that prefers the big picture to reading the daily torrent of email memos that pours through the ministerial-issue double-screen desktop.  Ms Rudd it seemed, readeth not, paid insufficient attention to what was going on, drove straight into the nearest pothole, and was pitched into the puddle.

Round at the Department of Transport (the “DoT”), Chris Grayling knows a lot about potholes.  Mr Grayling is Secretary of State for Transport, assisted by his Minister of State, Jo Johnson, quieter but equally ambitious brother of the Foreign Secretary.  Messrs Grayling and Johnson too know a thing or two about potholes, not least because they are the custodians of lots of them.  Not as many as you might thing perhaps; most of those urban traps which are liable to pitch you off your push bike or wreck your offside suspension are the responsibility of local authorities.  Pot holes may seem a jokey sort of matter but they – and the appalling condition of much of Britain’s overcrowded road surfaces – are edging their way up the political risk curve.

Local Authorities long cried “wolf” over their finances, even as they moved into shiny new offices and increased their head office staff.  But the wolf is finally at the door, though if he arrived by bike he probably would have his front wheel bent and lycra trousers torn by a hole in the road as he rode up.  Most local councils really do not have the money to repair the roads any more.  Their legal obligations are clear enough.  Once the council is aware of a pothole then it must repair it.  That frees the council from going around checking the edges of their roads, they can wait to be told of a problem, only then must they make reasonably prompt repairs.  (This rule also applies to those highways which are the responsibility of the Department of Transport.)  But the councils in some areas are effectively saying, “tell us as many times as you like, we have no money”.  What’s more, they are now starting to say, “those holes are not our fault”.  They are often right, though you may not care if you are in one.  Many holes result from utility providers who are busy digging up the roads to install new services or repair old ones.  In London the main culprits are Thames Water plc, who are struggling with their life expired cast iron water pipes which crack every time something heavy goes near them, and BT who are doing whatever they are doing (but it involves a lot of holes) to try to improve the connectivity of the web.  Most utilities are under the road so every time something needs work, up the road must come.  Well over two million times in England alone in an average year, the DoT estimates.  And the tarmac which goes down to repair it is not usually very well laid, so within a year, or even just over a bad winter, the new stuff crumbles and the problem reappears.

So the answer is obvious, isn’t it?  Mr Grayling, or more likely his civil servants, think so anyway.  Don’t put the services under the road.  Put them under the footpath, or grass verge, should one be available.  Unlikely in London, but in those nice suburbs only a few trees will get in the way.  At this point one begins to wonder if Mr Grayling may be reading the emails he gets from his officials only too assiduously, but without applying the questioning brain of a careful minister.  Of course, under the pavement would often be a much better place for utilities, and in a large concrete service conduit even more so, which is what happens on big new developments.  But the politics of digging up pavements are no better than those of digging up the road.  Old ladies with wheelie wicker baskets forced into the road to avoid the closed section of pavement; the halt and lame and partially sighted struggling up and down kerbs, toddlers and children and 32 ton trucks sharing a narrow slice of tarmac…

This is not the first time that Mr Grayling has ventilated schemes from the DoT that might on deeper reflection be worthy of second thoughts.  One that has been introduced – and it was announced this week that it is to be extended on a vast scale – is the use of motorway hard shoulders as extra traffic lanes at peak times.  Hard shoulders are those bits of glass- and grit-covered, torn tyre-strewn tarmac on the edges of motorways to which you head if your car is failing or your passengers in need of quick relief.  The M42 around Birmingham was the first road this system was adopted on, and it has since being used on other semi-urban motorways where peak traffic can be exceptionally high.  The DoT has cottoned on that it is much cheaper to use hard shoulders to drive on than to build new lanes, or heaven forefend, new motorways, so is now going to extend this all over the country.  Which will be wonderful until that busload of schoolchildren breaks down, has nowhere to retreat to, and a lorry load of steel does not notice in time.  Who would want to be Secretary of State for Transport then?  Nobody will be impressed by a cost/benefit analysis as that Twitterstorm begins.

We live in a world driven by short termism and tight budgets.  That can be literally a fatal combination if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, your car having run out of fuel before you reached the refuge or your push chair clipped by the extended wing mirror.  Fundamentally all this is about saving money, about patching for a two year solution rather than creating a twenty year reliable surface.  Bad road surfaces can only be reliably dealt with by resurfacing them, and to a standard that will give as long and robust a life as possible.  The answer to service providers who dig up roads is to charge them for the inconvenience that causes, and to fine them very heavily indeed if the reinstatement works are substandard.  No excuses, and no financial reason not to, given that most utilities are private and profitable companies.  And on motorways and other roads jammed from crash barrier to crash barrier, the answer, maybe sadly, is to either widen them or build some more.

People like cars, they give freedom and flexibility and comfort and privacy.  They are not in the foreseeable future going to go away – indeed electric self-driving cars may lure even more of them, and us, out into our dangerous roads and streets.  If Mr Grayling wants to prosper and move up the ministerial rankings he needs to pay attention to the detail – and the possible ramifications – of his department’s policies.   Ms Rudd can help him there; she has plenty of time.

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