It was one of those ‘Gordon Ramsay’ moments. It was the Edinburgh Festival, I was city council leader and, as I crossed Hunter Square, I was confronted by a pile of bricks and rubble where before a perfectly maintained road and footway had been.
Non-essential utility works during the Festival are banned and, having checked with council staff, I discovered there was no record of any public utility working there.
Presumably someone had decided just to ignore procedures. That was just one of a myriad of roads issues I dealt with at that time. Had there been a swear box in the council when I was dealing with roads maintenance I would quickly have been bankrupt.
Turns out fixing potholes isn’t easy. I really tried, and I made some progress. During the period I was Edinburgh leader, spending on roads and pavements quadrupled from a very low base of £5.9 million each year to over £23m in what was a genuine all-party attempt to tackle the problem. Indeed, parties jostled in each budget to have the highest figure for road maintenance.
So why don’t they get fixed? Firstly, there are so many factors and organisations involved. Most people think that it is just down to the council, but in fact almost our entire public infrastructure has been renewed in Scotland and most of that has involved digging up our roads and pavements.
With gas, electricity and water networks needing replaced and with our pressing need for improved broadband, a price has been paid in terms of the degradation of our roads. We have been through the biggest economic downturn in modern times so, understandably, there have been reductions in spending on roads, by around 20 per cent according to recent reports.
There are about 130,000 individual works on roads and pavements by utilities each year in Scotland. Edinburgh has almost exactly ten per cent of these. Of those roadworks, it is estimated that only just over 80 per cent have been done properly – and the survey is far from perfect. Remarkably, that’s an improvement from less than 50 per cent properly reinstated in 2001/2. That is equivalent to about four failures for every mile of road in Edinburgh. This work is vital – who doesn’t want clean water, a safe gas supply or better broadband? – and generally the utilities have risen to that challenge very well, but with it has come untold damage to existing roads.
Take the famous story of the Forth Bridge being constantly painted. But, rather than the paint just peeling off, imagine someone was at the back of the bridge actually scraping it off. That’s the challenge that councils face. Roads do not deteriorate quickly on their own. However, once the surface is broken by roadworks, the deterioration can be very rapid – especially given a bad winter.
And the reinstatements are only guaranteed for three years, thereafter responsibility for repairing them transfers to councils.
And some of the works aren’t strictly necessary. If you take over a shop you need a connection to the water supply. It’s the same shop, but if the pipe into that shop is only six inches under the surface, you will be required to dig it up and put a new pipe in much deeper. Why so? Turns out there was a big freeze some time ago in Ireland and the chief executive of the water company was forced to quit. To pre-empt that happening in Scotland, the rules were changed to compel anyone obtaining a new connection to dig up the road or pavement and place shallow pipes further underground (causing who knows what damage in the process). I suspect that if a chief executive of a utility company lost their job because of the poor standard of road reinstatements, the quality would be up near 100 per cent almost overnight.
Moderating this is the office of the Scottish Road Works Commissioner. Set up in 2005, I thought it was a great idea. It has overseen improvements in the coordination or roadworks, and of course the proportion of satisfactory reinstatements has risen, but all of those works that were previously shoddy are still deteriorating, and it is councils that are left holding the can.
I have studied the Commissioner’s website very hard and this is not a campaigning organisation. You can ask for the quarterly reports that it produces, but they are not published on its website. When it comes to roadworks, performance isn’t publicly trumpeted in a way that will shame utilities and expose shoddy work. There are just two media releases in 2017. I am sure there are many genuine people working hard there, but the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘teapot’ spring to mind when faced with the huge challenge of fixing our roads.
The results can be a challenge for car drivers or public transport users like me, but the issue is far more serious for cyclists. Hit a pothole in a car or a bus and you are unlikely to have a serious accident. Hit one on a bike and it could be a life-changing event.
With councils trying to keep spending up in the traditionally sensitive areas of schools, child protection and social care, finding significant new money for roads looks almost impossible. They are trying, but even if they do find more cash they face the challenge caused by utility works that have undermined and broken up too many roads in almost every street in the land.
Sadly, only very, very significant amounts of new cash and proper road reinstatements by utilities will bring proper change anytime soon.