/ Motoring

Potholes: are you tired of ropey road surfaces?


Recent research by the Local Government Association has concluded that it’ll take 14 years and cost £12bn to fix all the potholes in England and Wales. But it does seem as though there are a lot of potholes about. So do ropey road surfaces drive you mad?

Being both a cyclist and a motorist, potholes have become a bane of my life. I’m either narrowly avoiding going under the wheels of a bus when I swerve them on my bike, or risking being rear-ended when I slam on the brakes of my car in an effort to drive over them slowly to save my poor axle, suspension and tyres.

Problems with potholes

Only recently, my cousin was complaining to me about the state of the road leading to her home in a village in East Sussex and how no one seemed to be fixing the potholes any more.

I told her the problem wasn’t just local to her: I had to negotiate them a lot more frequently in London, too. I then wondered (embarrassingly, out loud), why, if the road tax on my car continued to rise pretty much every year (so therefore must do for everyone else), this revenue wasn’t being used to repair the roads.

Of course, I was soon corrected: road tax doesn’t pay for pothole/road repairs on local roads – the town, city or county council does.

And, it seems, that due to years of underfunding and bad weather, the average council in England and Wales is facing a one-off bill of £69m to bring its roads up to a reasonable standard.

In fact, such is the backlog that new research by the Local Government Association (LGA) states it would take 14 years and cost £12bn to fix all the potholed roads in both countries.

Despite budget cuts, the LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, says that councils are filling and patching up more potholes than ever – one every 15 seconds at a cost of around £55 per hole – but has called for urgent longer-term investment.

In a recent discussion about bumpy roads and speed humps, one Which? Conversation Community member, Wavechange, called for action on potholes:

‘I would certainly join a campaign to get potholes fixed having required a catalytic converter shortly after driving over a pothole that was not obvious because it was full of water.’

The fact is, that while it may take a considerable amount of money to repair our roads, potholes are also taking a toll on our cars. Earlier this month, the RAC Foundation revealed that in the past year alone more than 31,000 claims were made to local councils for damage to vehicles caused by poor road conditions. Councils paid out in a quarter of cases, with the average settlement being £306.

The RAC also found that the number of vehicle breakdowns caused by pothole-related damage had more than doubled in the past 10 years. And it’s estimated that potholes cost British motorists £684m each year.

Repairing the damage

So what’s being done about our holey roads?

Well, the LGA is calling for extra funding – it wants the government to put funding of local roads on the same footing as main roads, and for 2p per litre of fuel duty to be given to councils for maintenance and repairs.

For those based in Devon, you may have spotted a clean-up operation on your holey roads with an army of volunteer ‘Community Road Wardens’ out repairing your roads. The county council is recruiting and training these volunteers, supplying them with the materials and equipment to fill the holes it can’t afford to mend itself.

So, what do you think – are we doomed to forever be dodging these perilous potholes? Do ropey road surfaces wind you up? Has your car been damaged by a pothole before? Did you claim the damage from the council? Would you voluntarily repair your local roads under a scheme like the one in Devon?

Has your car been damaged by a pothole?

Yes (53%, 415 Votes)

No (34%, 267 Votes)

Don't know (13%, 103 Votes)

Total Voters: 785

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Do councils do their own road repairs any more or are they all farmed out to contractors?

Knowing many a pothole that gets routinely repaired with nothing more than a bit of tarmac chucked in the hole and having seen it packed down with a boot heel, it is hardly surprising we have so many of them.

One pothole mended and sealed properly once or repaired badly many times, councils need to take responsibility for the quality of repairs.

The repair work seems to be mainly let out to contractors. There are different contract models. In some, the council’s highways inspectors are responsible for identifying the problems and the remedy and then raising an order to the contractor; in others the contractor is responsible for scouting for road repairs and then carrying them out. Some pothole report lines or web report functions go to the highway authority but others are set up and operated by the contractor [but still accessed via the council website]. I expect there are pros and cons with both systems in terms of rapidity of response and quality of repair. The chief problem seems to be that the overall budget is inadequate, despite the government allocating large extra sums to highway authorities following recent harsh Winters.

A fundamental problem is the quality of road surfacing in general and subsequent repairs. The work is frequently not thorough enough in ensuring that the cavity is properly excavated and a correct treatment carried out so the dollop of bitumen has little to grip on and pops out with the next passing lorry. Where we are, many of the roads are heavily used by large agricultural tractors that have heavily ridged tyres; these really scour the roads, especially as they seem to bounce a lot and don’t necessarily travel in a straight line. The roadside edges are constantly being broken out by this traffic and repairs do not seem to last long. For economy reasons, roads are rarely completely resurfaced relying on just a new surface dressing of bitumen with chippings spread on top. Unless any underlying weaknesses in the carriageway are rectified before the surface dressing is applied then the old wounds will reappear and frost will do the rest. Surface dressing is prone to heaviy wearing at bends and junctions and other places where there are changes of speed and direction so such places, where safety is more critical, can be the first to fail. Not far from us a long section of an A road was resurfaced but within weeks it was pocked by potholes, some of them quite deep. A temporary repair was carried out but the contractor had to return to relay the road surface at their own expense. The volume of traffic makes our roads more susceptible to damage as well as harder to repair without causing widespread disruption. But heavier traffic equals higher fuel duty receipts so more money should be filtering through from central government to assist the local authorities, many of which find their non-trunk roads suffering from heavy traffic flows because they are on the way to ports or mineral sites or industrial plants no longer served by railways or canals.

Spraying and gritting has to be the worst type of road maintenance and an absolute waste of money that could be better spent.

Loose grit gets washed into drains resulting in blocking them and incurring the cost of unblocking them.

When it rains, loose grit sticks to tyres that then break up other weak road surfaces resulting in more potholes needing repair and incurring more cost.

Cars driving too fast on fresh spray and grit flick chippings at other vehicles, resulting in damaged windscreens and damaged car paint incurring further costs of repair.

Then there is the danger to cyclists and humans as flicking grit could cause injury that could result in a hospital visit and compensation.

We sometimes have to wait years for a road to be resurfaced only for the council to wreck it with spray and grit. They are under the illusion that it saves money and increases the life of the road surface.

our council does not repair the potholes although as fast as the private firms seem to repair them new ones reappear

I am refusing to pay the share of council tax for road care now. I want to know what it actually goes on as it certainly isn’t the road surface or pavements. I have paid enough shares into it and not seen anything for it. Once I see roads being repaired completely and not wasting money filling in pot holes that just come out again every Winter. Companies should be made to pay for it. They think we are just suckered with never ending purses.

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A common problem on country roads is that vehicles damage tarmac roads by driving onto the verge when meeting other vehicles. This gradually breaks up the road surface and one road I use regularly has required annual repairs. I’m no expert but installing a kerb that is level with the road surface could help preserve the integrity of the tarmac and be very cost effective.

It is not difficult to report potholes, but I’m not sure how we get people to slow down when they can see that a road surface is starting to deteriorate.

Smike says:
6 November 2016

Potholes can be lethal for two wheeled vehicles.
If the rider hits one head on, the ride will be bumpy, but usually cause no loss of control.
However, it a front wheel drives too near the side of a pothole, and the front wheel then slips sideways off of the edge, the cyclist or motorcyclist will always, fall off.
These ‘accidents’ are never without consequence, and this, could be be injury, or even death if run over by a following vehicle.

Filling in potholes was, if I remember correctly, the methodology employed by mediaeval barons and enjoyed roughly the same level of success. As Duncan has noted, once you have a few in any road then re-laying is really the only option.

There is a national service for reporting potholes: https://www.gov.uk/report-pothole
Councils may also have phone numbers and web pages to report potholes.

Perhaps you would be happy if the local council imposed a pothole surcharge – like any other precept – that ringfenced money just to repair potholes. By my calculation we will require around £454 per household – spread over a number of year It might be, though, that other groups would look for similar ringfenced funds.

Alternatively, as there are 35 million registered vehicles in the UK, and the total potholes repair cost is estimated at £12 billion, we could use the money destined for smart meters, a chunk of HS2, or add £34.50 to vehicle excise duty for the next 10 years. Any other ideas where the money might come from?

I’m not sure who ‘you’ is referring to but I remember purchase tax on luxury goods, which seemed a very sensible form of taxation. That was in the days before VAT was introduced. At one time we had VAT rates of 25%, 8%, zero and exempt. Higher taxation of luxury goods could go some way narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

I can see other opportunities to raise funding from those who have surplus funds. For example, the registration numbers of scrapped pre-1963 cars (ones without a date identifier) could be auctioned, maybe on a live TV programme.

That last idea is excellent, and there are many other sources for raising money. Bad roads cost a lot of people a lot of money, and leaving the cost to local councils whilst simultaneously cutting income to those councils leaves the government believing its hands are clean.

The government could, for instance, increase the top rates of income tax (slightly unpopular) increase speeding fines by a factor of five (probably equally unpopular) vastly increase Road fund costs for heavy goods vehicles, considering the disproportionate damage they cause (popular), cancel Trident (jury out) or spend the vast amounts we were promised we’d have once we’re out of the EU 🙂 I really don’t see cost as the major obstacle.

“you” means all who use the roads. Remember the money estimated to repair potholes is £12 billion. Car number plates will make but a tiny dent.

I suggested car number plates because there is no necessity to have a distinctive number. What about increasing VAT on non-essential luxury goods?

According to the DoT 1 in 12 households has a private number plate. That suggests that far from it being a ‘tiny dent’ it could make a significant pothole if the costs were raised sufficiently.

There must be many opportunities for the government to raise funds for essential work in ways other than general taxation.

I did a calculation above based on registered vehicles – 34.5 million. If 8% have private plates (I must say looking at vehicles on the road I find that surprising).

There are around 2.6 million new cars registered each year. Assuming 1 in 12 buys a private plate, and we reduce the “exaggerated” pothole repair bill to £6 billion, these number plates would have to cost £2000 each if we were to deal with the problem over 10 years. I doubt that 1 in 12 households would pay £2000, so the revenue possible would dramatically reduce, and I don’t really want to wait 10 years (during which time I expect a lot more potholes will develop anyway). We need a more immediate solution, don’t we, if we think potholes are a priority?

Where then do we take the money from? Maybe those out of work, but fully capable of work, could be recruited as part of their benefits entitlement to supply the labour necessary? Ooooh………….. Those in prison?

You might be surprised to see what people will pay for, Malcolm. And as for your estimate of ten years, bear in mind the inherent flaws in the calculation. It’s likely the repair and maintenance costs have been wildly overestimated, so I’d take the £12bn with a large pinch of salt – always bad for roads, too. Secondly, ten years is the sort of calculation used by the Treasury every day, especially when budgets start to ‘give away’ things, so nothing unrealistic about that, even if it were accurate. Finally, that’s only private plates; there are numerous other aspects of the luxury market, and for which the appetite appears insatiable, that could be heavily taxed.

Many might consider a foreign holiday to be a luxury. Just to explore that possibility then. Apparently the average spend is £1400 per person, assume 35 million take them (it was 37.6 million in 2013 according to ONS) and each paid 2.5% of that, £1.2 billion would be raised.

Or we might put a surcharge when holidaymakers from abroad visit us. I’d be interested to know what other “luxuries” might be taxed extra and how much that might raise

Post Brexit, we could also introduce the “Carnet de Passages” system and charge temporary road tax to visiting foreign cars and lorries, e.g. as are required to use motorways in some foreign countries.

A few months ago I was walking to the shops and noticed a large pothole in the road which was clearly getting bigger everyday as loose material was being broken out from the edges and scattered around. In view of its seriousness I telephoned the highways department and spoke to someone who said my report was the first even though the hole must have been developing for some time. It was patched up within a day of my call and a permanent repair has since been carried out. If people are not going to report potholes it’s a bit difficult to complain about the state of the roads. This hole was on a bus route and I should have thought that, if only to protect their vehicles, bus companies would want their drivers to report such road defects; of course, once they know they are there, bus drivers and other regular users of a road will anticipate them and steer to avoid them.

The figure of £12 billion for repairing the roads comes from the Local Government Association who probably sent a circular round to the chief highway engineers asking how much it would cost to fix their roads. It would be naïve to believe there was no exaggeration in the responses as the purpose of the enquiry was to press for a further amount from central government. The highways engineers probably have fairly accurate knowledge of the state of their roads because they have inspectors who patrol the roads looking for defects and they carry out benchmarked surveys into highway condition. What I am dubious about is the way this basic and largely unchallengeable data is grossed up into a nice round sum to throw at the government.

My own unscientific assessment is that the roads are not in such a bad state because of cavities that have just appeared in the surface [and which generally receive attention eventually in an order of priority]; it is more often the case that the surface condition of the roads is poor because of badly-reinstated street works by the public utilities. Uncomfortable rides [and damage to vehicles and injuries to road users] are just as likely to be due to rutting on the approaches to traffic signals and roundabouts as all vehicles follow the same line, badly constructed road humps, trenches where the backfill is collapsing, raised drain covers, and other surface projections. My casual observations don’t identify a significant number of potholes although there is no doubt that roads in some areas have been neglected for years and are now showing the consequences.

It would be interesting to compare the estimates of the amounts required by each highway authority to the surpluses they are making on parking penalties which they seem to like spending on fancy traffic management schemes rather than on repairing the roads. Speeding penalties could also contribute instead of going entirely to the police.

I suspect that the £12 billion sum is actually twice as high as is really necessary to bring the roads up to a satisfactory condition if carried out on a priority basis having regard to traffic volumes and seriousness of defects. It probably reflects an ideal state as set out in the maintenance manuals but which might not be realistic under detailed scrutiny. Many potholes are already being repaired routinely and extra funds have been made available by the government each year to accelerate the rate of remediation. Highway repairs have to be paid for from the Council Tax, not by capital spending based on long-term borrowing, so it is in competition with lots of other municipal services from subsidised bus services and trading standards to public libraries and care of the elderly. Before we give a bonanza to the highway engineers we should think deeper about the priorities.

I read the other day that switching off selected street lights in our county between midnight and 5 am has saved hundreds of thousands of pound with no reported increase in crime or safety problems. That could be extended and the savings used to fill the potholes.

In the 1950’s onwards there was a period of massive capital investment by local councils in public housing, schools, residential homes, libraries, and other assets for which the funds were borrowed over sixty years, the repayments being a charge to the Council Tax accounts. Those loans have now been repaid or are in the process of being repaid but not a huge amount of new asset provision has been made to take its place. I am intrigued to know where the savings in loan funding are going, other than quietly into the overall pot to finance over-expenditure and unjustifiable costs in hidden areas of bureaucracy. I appreciate that sixty year-old assets were not costing much to fund in real terms today due to the effects of inflation, but it’s another potential source of money and one which I suppose municipal finance directors would prefer not to have pushed into the spotlight.

Properly repairing roads would mean significantly lower costs than patching them up, in the same way that preventative medicine would save a significant amount of expenditure on drugs. The big problem is of course finding the money that could save more in the long term.

Properly repairing roads could generate a lot of worthwhile jobs.

Warwichshire CC say:
“The repair of potholes is carried out by a combination of temporary and permanent processes.

Cost management decisions and health and safety requirements, often makes it more cost effective to do durable temporary repairs, which should last up to 12 months. This is followed by more permanent repairs, or full reconstruction to a stretch of road suffering from potholes. Permanent repairs require larger equipment and traffic management. Many potholes occur randomly across the 3820 kilometre (2368 mile) of road network and require fast repairs to:

Ensure safety of road users including cyclist, motorcycles and cars.
Minimise traffic congestion on the network, by reducing repeat visits to a particular road.
Minimise the associated risk of insurance claims.
Warwickshire spends money on both temporary and permanent repairs of potholes and road deterioration:

Cost of temporary potholes repairs – 10,000 to 14,000 potholes are repaired a year, costing £250,000 including labour, plant and materials.
Cost of permanent patching – 40,000 square meters (sqm) of patching repairs a year, costing a total of £1.2M. The areas being patched varies from 1 to 200sqm.
Cost of major highway repairs – In a typical year County Highways reconstructs or overlays some 35 to 50km of road and surface dresses some 200km (a tar and chippings process covering some 1,200,000sqm of road). Collectively the treatments improve some 6% of the highway network. The annual spend is £4M.”

Five potholes per year per mile on Warwickshire’s roads does not seem to be particularly serious but they will be concentrated in various locations and possibly repeated in the same locations with many miles of highway relatively unaffected.

The Norfolk CC website does not seem to give so much easily accessible information on road repairs or basic data but there is an enormous [and fascinating] amount of detail and methodology in its 530-page Traffic Assets Management Plan where I discovered that there are 9,858 Km of publicly maintained highway. It has a piece on the extra money from the government’s Pothole Action Fund under which it has received £1,616,000 this year. It says that “In line with Department for Transport guidance to promote greater transparency we will publish an annual progress report by the end of March 2017 showing;
How much money has been spent
Details of how many potholes have been permanently repaired or the length of resurfacing that has taken place to stop the formation of potholes
What we had originally budgeted to spend this financial year and how this additional funding has complemented the wider maintenance expenditure
This funding must complement (rather than displace) planned highway maintenance expenditure for 2016/17.

The county council is budgeting to receive the same amount from the Pothole Action Fund over the following two years. The county council gives ‘medium-life’ repairs [mainly surface dressing and wearing course resurfacing] as having an expected life of 10-15 years. I would hope that through such action they could also reduce their insurance premiums.

I also noticed that out of 52,000 street lights in the county, fewer than 6,000 were using LED lamps [the bulk still being sodium lamps] so considerable savings are available from that source over time [although I have a feeling, but can’t put my finger on it, that the government reduces the grant settlement in respect of such anticipated savings in order to force councils to implement them].

I feel that with a concerted effort [and proper repairs as Wavechange suggests] over the next five years the highway authorities could make a huge difference and that we shouldn’t be taking too much notice of the scare figures being put about by the LGA who obviously want more of our money to spend.

My impression is that some parts of the country are worse than others. Perhaps national reporting (I gave a link earlier) might draw attention to the problem areas. I have not noticed many potholes in the past year but realise that cyclists and motorcyclists are at much greater risk than drivers.

LED street lighting was installed in our street recently and now my front garden is in near darkness. The lamp posts have not been moved but the new lamps are far too directional. Now I have to put on an outside light to help evening visitors park and negotiate the garden path.

I have noticed this recently while going out in the evening. There are now long pools of darkness between each lighting column and many are also obscured by foliage so the line of the path disappears from view. I take a torch with me in order to avoid the trip hazards and potholes in the footway and people’s wheelie bins.

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Many people complain about street lights shedding light on their property – and bedroom windows. In residential areas lighting to a reasonable degree on the frontages of properties is regarded as a crime deterrent. You cannot please everybody. We don’t have any street lighting at all and I find that rather pleasant.

Light is light, whether seen directly or whether reflected. Convo regulars must be nearly blind by now after looking at their computer screens.

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I am aware of what LEDs and LCDs are. They are both sources of light, just as is white paper when it reflects the sun.

Lucy King says:
7 November 2016

Damage to cars is expensive and infuriating but potholes are potentially lethal to cyclists. For years, opposite my house there was a deep pothole – large enough to trap a bicycle wheel. On wet days this was completely hidden by a large puddle. Recently the road has been re-surfaced but in a way that but on past experience is unlikely to survive long. It certainly hasn’t cured the puddle. Plus it was a very localised repair. Just round the corner the potholes are still there. This is a place where cycling is how many, if not most, people get around daily.

Careful – this might raise the issue again as to whether cyclists should contribute towards roads, like motorists and motorcyclists do. 2 million regular adult riders might be seen as a source of cash – other than from regular taxes as one correspondent suggested. Do we think they should make some contribution?

It is reported “According to the AIA, the average pothole repair ranges from £35 in Wales to £55 in England,”. Perhaps we should get the Welsh to come and repair the English ones. Get 50% more done that way. 🙂

Malcolm – Cyclists are making a significant contribution, not financially, but because they mean fewer cars on the road and less pollution in cities. – something I feel strongly about as an asthmatic. They don’t even cause potholes. ‘On your bike’ with the suggestion that they should contribute road repairs other than through general taxation. 🙂

I expressed a simple thought, not a personal proposition. I raised a question that may, or may not, receive a response other than “on your bike” (I don’t have one but a couple of my family cycle for leisure and raised £1000 – some from us – for the British Lung Foundation in a recent 100km charity cycle ride). 🙂
So just where do we get pothole money from?

How about taxation on luxury goods, which I suggested earlier? Maybe Ian could give details of his suggestions. Incidentally, I agree with you about HS2 but many are in favour of the expenditure.

I am always glad to hear of people prepared to put in effort to raise funding for good causes.

Malcolm, you’re obsessed with a shortage of money. But Government manages to raise billions without a second thought, when it suits. Now, the NHS has first call, but now it appears as though there won’t be anything like the money the Brexiteers promised, that will have to be found somewhere. And it will. So long as the Government keeps making the banks comfy in London, the cash will keep flowing in. And there’s another, lucrative source of income: massive taxation on foreign-owned homes in London.

Ian, I am not obessessed with anything, simply pointing out that £12 billion (or £6 billion if others are right), has to be found somewhere. Apart from the NHS, HS2, defence, foreign aid, it could build up to 150 000 homes to help those in need. It is about not only raising money but what we choose as priorities to spend it on.

The way to solve these matters is to work for a healthy economy that can produce the funds we need from taxation without inadvertently damaging other sectors.

It’s also a curious state of affairs where it is easier to hire another 2,500 prison officers than to reduce the prison population by the requisite number to balance the inventory against the establishment.

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Why does everything we discuss here have to be cross-referenced to the United States, Duncan? Our situations are generally significantly different and I would rather learn what is happening on the European continent than across the Atlantic Ocean.

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What you say is true, especially in terms of American influence on this country. But I feel that is one of the reasons why we have fallen out of favour with major European countries who see us constantly looking the wrong way; if we had been more ‘continental’ instead of ‘mid-Atlantic’ the other states in the EU might have been less disobliged to help us stay within the fold. As it was, David Cameron got little to show for his months of sweat and toil [the eastern and southern Europeans could see we didn’t like them anyway so the end result would have been the same I suppose]. They have held the door open for us to leave and can’t wait to see the back of us now, while the US has made it clear they will keep us at the back of the line so sucking up to them hasn’t got us anywhere either.

Phil says:
7 November 2016

It’s to the cyclists benefit to have potholes repaired however they are caused so I don’t see why they shouldn’t contribute. Aside from traffic frost damage and water leaks are a major cause of damage to road surfaces.

On the subject of traffic damage 80% of it is caused by HGV’s but this is not reflected in the proportion of tax they pay. This in effect is a £3 billion hidden subsidy of the road haulage industry by the rest of us.

Perhaps 2500 inmates could be employed as prison officers. Might turn their lives around.

I don’t suppose every warder is as good as gold.

“Perhaps 2500 inmates could be employed as prison officers. Might turn their lives around.”

Perhaps they’d be more use in US style chain gangs filling in the potholes…

Phil says:
7 November 2016

I’m currently in the process of filing a claim for a ruined tyre. I hit a pothole in the dark and it put a bulge in the sidewall. The pothole was caused by the hopelessly incompetent contractors who have been putting in fibre optic cables for broadband damaging a water main. Three time they’ve been back to fix it and each time it starts to leak almost as soon as they’ve gone.

As you might expect the claim form is made to be as longwinded and difficult as possible to discourage motorists from claiming (scans of the V5, MoT and the insurance certificate are required).

This is the second time. Three years ago I dented one of my steel winter rims in a different location.

If we are looking for money from within the highways budget to spend on road repairs we could start with unnecessary traffic signs. Why do they put large permanent signs up saying “New Road Layout Ahead” on all branches of a new roundabout or signal-controlled junction when they are supposed to be removed after six months anyway [but never are]? A temporary and reuseable A-board could do the job. Drivers who have been held up by the new road works are already aware there is a new layout; those who have never been there before won’t know the difference; this just leaves the very occasional visitor who might not be aware and will just have to get used to it.

And do we need all those brown tourist signs pointing to local places of interest [and even guest houses in some cases]? Places asking for such signs should pay for their installation plus an annual charge for maintenance. With postcodes, sat-navs, and better mapping all these places are properly plotted. I recognise that this idea might not bring in much revenue but there would be no loss either and the cost of provision and maintenance would be saved. The odd tourist might go astray and would have to ask someone.

A couple of years ago our county went through a large review of speed limits on rural roads and a plethora of new limits were put in place, with changes from 30 to 40 to 50 m/h for example taking place at regular intervals. Apart from the cost of signage each changed speed limit requires, I believe, a legal action including publication in relevant newspapers adding significantly to the cost. What, I wonder, does it achieve. One of our local speed limits was moved by 30 meters; it cost in excess of £10 000. You would think those in charge of public spending would look at cost benefit in the same way private business must to survive. But then local authorities don’t have to be prudent to survive, do they?

John – There are charges for brown tourism signs: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/apply-for-brown-tourist-signs-on-roads-the-highways-agency-manage

Malcolm – I sit on a small executive committee that looks at environmental issues and tourism and applies for funding for community projects and interacts with stakeholders and the public. Having seen many organisations waste money I am extremely impressed how careful the council employees involved are with public money and the grant funding we generate. Clearly there are examples of waste, and it’s those that the press rightly pick on. Responsible behaviour is not very newsworthy.

Phil says:
7 November 2016

The true cost benefit of reducing speed limits comes in a reduction of the number of accidents and their severity, pollution levels and wear and tear on the road surface which dwarf the costs involved in signage and so on.

My example was one of, I believe, unnecessary spending. However as to your other point I think councils have been forced to be more prudent by simply withdrawing funding.

My local council tells me that over the last 10 years “we’ve saved 50% of our budget”. “We’ve reduced our management workforce by two thirds”. Well, I delighted. But maybe it shows how they have been far less prudent in the past. I hope when money becomes easier we don’t return to those days.

Phil says:
7 November 2016

What services have been cut, libraries closed etc?

Of course, they don’t tell you that. But in fact not too much that is noticed. The cut in management was one interesting fact that took my eye

Thanks for a good link Wavechange! It refers to those roads managed by Highways England which are the Motorways and Trunk Road network. All other roads, including many de-trunked A Roads, are managed by local highway authorities [chiefly the county councils in rural areas and metropolitan district or London borough councils elsewhere; Transport for London manages Red Routes in London and there might be some other differences around the country]. Local highway authorities have discretion whether or not to charge for the brown tourist signs and in general many have not done so. Norfolk is currently consulting on whether it should do so and is torn between heeding the pleadings of the local tourist boards and stately home owners or expecting places of interest to pay for signs if they need them.

There is a hierarchy of roads and I think there should be a counterpart hierarchy of maintenance priorities. It works more or less like that in our area and there are miles of country lanes that receive virtually no maintenance so they have grass growing down the middle of them. They also have no potholes.

Thanks John. I must look this up because I have learned of plans to place a brown sign somewhere that might be inappropriate.

I think they are too big, ugly, and unnecessary.

If properly used, they help by directing the public towards places with parking and other facilities and their absence elsewhere can help protect environmentally sensitive areas from excessive visitors without the need to take measures to exclude the public. Yes they are ugly but that goes for a lot of signage. Maybe we need a sign to direct us back into potholes.

We spend £12.2 billion on foreign aid. Some regard that as going to dubious places and a good proportion of it might be better spent on national aid. Maybe pothole repair and increased employment to carry it out. In times of “austerity” where should we best direct our resources.

And so we’re back to money. Malcolm, £12.2bn is 0.7% of the GNI of the UK. The money to repair roads is there – just that government doesn’t want to give it to councils, and doesn’t want to take on responsibility for all roads itself. This is primarily a political issue – not a financial one.

There are all sorts of reasons why the roads ought to be better maintained, and many relate to the NHS. On a purely pragmatic point, emergency ambulances are more likely to get their patients to hospital safely if the roads are in good nick. People who suffer car damage from driving on poorly maintained roads are more likely to suffer stress, with the concomitant health issues that provokes. In fact, I’m pretty sure that a sound economic case can easily be made for maintaining roads, if only for the reduction in NHS costs.

But let’s be honest about this: it suits the government to refuse to accept responsibility for roads and it suits them to keep local councils cash-strapped. There’s quite a bit of spare cash floating around Whitehall. It’s simply that a political decision to use it hasn’t been forthcoming.

It is all about where money comes from. I do not want to see th UK saddled with even more debt. We have to live within our means just like individuals do. I don’t know how much this huge pot of money is that you refer to Ian; perhaps you could say.

I’d like to see much better social care, and unblock hospital beds. I’d like to see much better mental health care provision. I’d like to see shorter NHS waiting lists so that people who need treatment can get their quality of life back, I’d like to see much better state pensions. All this costs money and we need to decide where what I regard as limited resources get spent.

I support you on all of that, Ian.

I don’t see any need to reduce our foreign aid allocation; it does have certain economic benefits as well as stabilising undeveloped countries. I don’t mean this in a paternalistic or colonialist way. I think the richest countries should assist where they can without constantly questioning it.

On roads expenditure, it doesn’t help to have wild guesses thrown around as to how much needs to be spent. Maintaining roads is a statutory duty and it’s almost an admission of failure if the Local Government Association is saying its members cannot manage their budgets and perform their duties.

Malcolm, I think I see your problem. You believe that phrases such as ‘borrowing requirement’ and ‘National Debt’ actually equate to real money and that governments can only spend money that they actually ‘have’.

There are really two points here: to deal with the first and easiest point, maintaining roads properly isn’t simply something that should be done. The UK functions on the basis of a good infrastructure and, although the railways are slowly starting to make up for the wholesale, politically-motivated carnage wreaked in the early ’60s, mainly to allow Marples to develop his road haulage business, there is still a massive demand for decent roads. On health grounds alone the roads have to be improved but there are many other compelling reasons to improve them. I don’t know if you’re aware that international motor vehicle builders bring their vehicles to the UK for suspension tests as few places in the world have roads as poor (I’ll dig out the reference).

But for society, isolated communities, the NHS, schools, business – good roads aren’t an optional extra.

The second point is a little more abstruse, so I apologise in advance. However, it’s based on two fairly simple premises: No one knows how much money the government has and, secondly, no one in the world understands international or national macro economics.

I’ve known some pretty bright individuals, some of whom actually studied economics and not a single one of them ever agreed with anything another said. These were not simple disagreements over minutiae, either; they could all interpret exactly the same data and reach utterly different conclusions.

Governments do not, contrary to popular belief, work out finance like the average householder. Partly this is down to the fact that money no longer exists, other than in dreams. What exists is accounting, rows and blocks of figures moving from one place to another. These theoretically represent some sort of monetary standard, but not actual money. We live in a world where for most normal folk, like you or I, we can’t exceed our income without being penalised heavily. However, for the mega-rich and Governments, totally different rules apply.

I could go on for a long time about this, but essentially one reason for the 2008 crash was exactly that: money doesn’t exist. Society’s highest level is built on paper figures. It’s little short of terrifying if you look too closely, so best not to. But in the ’50s (I think) there was an excellent film which demonstrates some of this rather neatly.

A chap came into possession of a one million pound note. He was told he never had to spend any of it – in fact, he wouldn’t be able to, but he’d be extremely well off simply by having it. It’s an old B&W film but fascinating in concept.

There’s money aplenty to sort the roads. If the government was serious about improving them, it could be done. But don’t worry about ‘where’ it will come from. Because they won’t.

Ian, my “problem” is not that roads need improving – they do – but that, like it or not, the resources need to be found to deal with doing the necessary work. The means to fund this work does need to be found. If you would like us to end up as Greece nearly did then just keep overspending. I don’t want that to happen to the UK. We nearly met that fate having spent up in the Second World War. I remember shortages, rationing, poor housing because the country was virtually bankrupt.

It doesn’t work like that any more. The point I’m making is that the resources to sort it do exist because of the rather worrying way in which governments perceive national finance.

Comment repositioned.

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The only “Lord Fleet” I can find is the 3rd Baron Thomson of Fleet, a Canadian with $37 billion (so he could, single handedly, fix our potholes). My address book is missing any others. I don’t know any reason he would be proud of me. Does he read these Convos?

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I think we’ve departed from potholes now duncan. I would have responded that the state pension is now capped at £7280 but changed my mind. I was going to point out that high earners pay more tax, but that would be off topic. I’d just like to see some constructive comments on how, realistically, we can deal with potholes and fund their repair along with other demands on our money.

Maybe increase the additional rate income tax rate for those with taxable income above £150k.

I would rather catch their luxury spending with a 30% rate of VAT.

I agree John. I was just exploring the possibilities.

What do you call luxury spending John?

It was interesting that you asked, Malcolm, because after making my comment I have been wondering where I would draw the line and thinking it would be a good topic for a Conversation around Christmas.

We were watching a silly programme on Channel 5 recently in which Eamonn Holmes and his wife Ruth Langsford pretended to boggle at the things that very rich people buy and adorn their luxury mansions with, and there were lots of examples like cars, yachts, watches, jewellery, artworks, fashion items, and various other accessories most of which were pure indulgence. It was a bit ironical because the couple are not exactly short of a shekel themselves but kept going on about “how the other half live”. They were seen riding around in taxis and walking up to palatial front doors presumably to conceal their own private vehicles. Anyway, they seem to be a nice pair and didn’t display any vulgar ostentation unlike most of the people being interviewed and an emerging theme was that there are large numbers of people who don’t know what to spend their money on next and that for many their wealth is growing at a pace which means they can’t spend it fast enough to keep up so they have multiple homes, cars, yachts and the other accoutrements required to maintain their status. One could not envy these people but it did shed light on another world where some additional taxation could be judiciously applied, if only to moderate the tastelessness of their extravagance and relieve them of the burden of excess lucre.

As you questioned earlier, is a foreign holiday a luxury? Perhaps the first fourteen days abroad is OK but anything after that would be. Who is to say? Is there a price level above which a watch is a luxury? Some bird watchers have thousands of pounds worth of photographic gear, but is that a luxury? Duncan has mentioned top-of-the-range shotguns that probably cost thousands of pound each, and the sporting outfits that go with them are possibly just as expensive; but in the ducal aristocracy this equipment is de rigeur. £100 pound a roll wallpapers are a luxury for some but necessary for others to maintain their historic [but maybe modest] houses to the standard required to suit their listed building status. So it’s a tricky question, and I’m going to dodge it right now.

EH reportedly 33rd in the TV top 50 rich list with £11m, trying to sell their Surrey mansion for £3.5m, RL apparently worth £5m according to another website.

A bit rich innit !!!

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