Alastair Dalton: State of Scots roads shown little improvement

About the only thing the publication of this week's report on Scotland's roads achieved was making drivers glad to see their pain officially acknowledged. Beyond that, don't hold your breath.

The overall condition of our roads isnt that different from three years ago. Picture: John Devlin
The overall condition of our roads isnt that different from three years ago. Picture: John Devlin

The latest investigation by the Audit Commission public spending watchdog showed the overall condition of our roads isn’t that different from its previous study three years ago.

The good news is that most types of roads haven’t deteriorated further, despite some pretty significant council spending cuts.

The bad news is there has not been much of an improvement either, despite a succession of such reports over the years, accompanied by various recommendations for action.

The simple truth seems to be that it’s a complicated problem and we don’t have enough money to fix it. But what it also boils down to is that Scotland has lived with the situation, and will continue to do so.

Yes, local authorities have launched laudable initiatives like potholes hotlines and prioritising the worst streets, but ruts generally don’t force road closures, and motorists get by.

By contrast, when parts of the road network have to be shut by a sudden event – such as the Forth Road Bridge’s broken joint being discovered last December – money is thrown at the problem until it’s solved.

Not so with potholes. Drivers report them, they hope they will be fixed, and try to steer round them until that happens.

It seems so simple, but roads authorities have the burdens of history and the weather against them.

History, because Scotland’s roads have evolved over centuries and were built in many different ways, making their repair a complex affair that engineers have told me requires a wide variety of different approaches.

And weather, because the country’s prevailing conditions has made road maintenance an unusually challenging task.

Unlike colder countries, which have more snow and more constant winter temperatures, Scotland often sees yo-yoing thermometers and sudden changes involving varied combinations of snow, ice, gales and rain.

I’ve even heard of roads engineers from Scandinavia – which have far more predictable winters – visiting Scotland to see how we cope.

I also remember asking the Met Office several years ago about the chances of a third white winter in a row, just as ministers showed off their latest snow-busting vehicles in anticipation.

The agency told me anything could happen - and it did. Winters since then have included some that have been mainly characterised by fierce gales, and others heavy rain, rather than another big freeze.

All that plays havoc with the roads, as cracks open up under the weight of traffic and fill with water that sometimes freezes, making the holes progressively bigger.

Roads engineers have in the past told me there is such a huge repairs backlog that drivers will just have to learn to love potholes, so speak.

There was an echo of that in this week’s report, which warned that road maintenance budgets may face a further squeeze as other services, like education, health and social care, compete for dwindling public funds.

Not to mention the billions pledged for new roads like dualling the A9 and A96.

For all the predictable calls for urgent action that greeted the report, and all the proposed solutions, they alas all remain far out of sight.