Crumbling Britain: the UK’s pothole plague is a sign of national decline

As cyclists and drivers are endangered, politicians too could be toppled by the deteriorating state of our roads.

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In March 2013, retired gas worker Mark Morrell was driving his car around a bend on an A-road that snakes through the Northamptonshire village of Farthinghoe.

The leafy, hedge-lined drive, overlooked by a pretty 13th-century parish church, is not the place one would expect a political revolt to begin. 

But when Morrell, now 57, reported a pothole in the road – which was forcing cars to veer dangerously –  he drew attention to a critical symptom of national decline.

Earlier this month, a debate about potholes and road maintenance in parliament revealed the cross-party concerns of MPs. The restoration of local roads, they warned, is now estimated to cost £9.3bn and will take 14 years: a backlog of defects left unattended.

After reporting his first pothole, Morrell soon became known locally as “Mr Pothole”. He has had thousands of potholes repaired, helped hundreds of people with damage claims, and calculates that in the last five years he has achieved £1.5m worth of resurfacing work.

One recent afternoon, driving slowly in his maroon Infiniti hatchback, Morrell showed me the location of his original complaint. A burly figure dressed casually in beige slacks and a t-shirt the colour of his car, Morrell’s no-nonsense, good-humoured nature gave way to outrage when he drove over damaged surfaces.

“I was warning, when I first started out, that our roads were at a tipping point,” he told me, squeezing the brake pedal in his brown leather slip-ons as we approached the spot. “It’s not going away; it’s going to get worse.”

One in five of Britain’s local roads are now in a poor condition because of potholes, and likely to become unusable in the next five years if not repaired. Last year, affected motorists were paid half a million pounds more by UK authorities in compensation than in the previous year. There was an 11 per cent increase in breakdowns caused by poor-quality roads in the last three months of 2017.

Morrell’s combative reputation ensured his election in May as the mayor of Brackley, a nearby Northamptonshire town. He moved there 20 years ago, his broad London accent a reminder of where he was brought up – leaving school as an apprentice at 16 to dig up roads and lay gas mains in the capital.

Although he has made ten formal complaints to county councils – including Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Lincolnshire – Morrell predominantly blamed central government. “Decades of under-investment by government is the main problem,” he told me. He avoided accusing any individual party –  “potholes haven’t got no politics, they just need repairing” – instead lamenting the complacency of successive governments, and highway authorities’ reliance on private contractors “always looking at bottom lines” when doing maintenance work.

The government’s pothole action fund, which is providing £296m between 2016 and 2021, is allocated to councils according to the size of their road network. After unusually poor winter weather, this help was boosted by £100m at the end of March (a figure described by the Local Government Association as “just over 1 per cent of what is needed”).

“The government can spin what they like – our roads don’t lie,” said Morrell. “It’s a cost motorists are bearing, and yet they’re paying all forms of taxes.”

Drivers aren’t the only ones suffering: the number of cyclists killed or injured on poorly maintained roads has tripled in a decade. At least 390 cyclists were killed or seriously hurt between 2007 and 2016 because of potholes.

According to cycling accident lawyer Grant Incles, who’s seen a rise in people contacting him with such cases this year, cyclists are jamming their front wheels into potholes and being thrown over their handlebars into the road.

There’s no mandatory definition of a pothole – the Department for Transport’s guidance suggests anything deeper than 40mm – so councils are stretching the depth at which they make repairs to save money (some have sunk to 60mm and deeper).

“The guidance is quite wishy-washy,” says Sam Jones, Cycling UK’s senior campaigner who runs their pothole tracker, Fill That Hole. “This is a particular concern.”

Yet he too sees under-funding as a danger. “Ninety-eight per cent of traffic is going on our local roads, but a fraction of the investment. It’s like putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg.”

In June 2011, 51-year-old Martyn Uzzell from Somerset was killed when his bike hit a 10cm-deep pothole in north Yorkshire, and he fell in front of a car. He had been doing a charity ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. The pothole had been reported to the council and inspected, but was not deemed serious enough for immediate action.

It took until 2014 for an inquest, when the coroner stated there was “no doubt whatsoever that the condition of the road on that occasion was the cause of the incident”, adding that the pothole – which surrounded a drain on an A road – had “existed for some time prior to the accident”.

“I’ve read reports about this happening to other people, and I feel sick every time I hear it… it stole my future,” said Kate Uzzell, Martyn’s widow, who works for a property management company and now campaigns for crash victim charity RoadPeace.

We spoke over the phone in the same month of her late husband’s crash, seven years on.

“We’re now in June, which is a really bad month for me, I still miss him,” she told me, fighting back tears. They had been together since 1989.

Since 2011, other cyclists have died in accidents involving potholes. Ralph Brazier, a finance director and father of three, was killed in 2016 after hitting an 11cm-deep pothole in Surrey – the coroner urged the county council to look at how it rates the severity of road defects.

That same year, Kate Vanloo, a triathlete and mother of three, cycled into a water-filled hole and was fatally hit by a car in Warwickshire, and 83-year-old Roger Hamer was flung from his bike in Greater Manchester. In the latter case, the coroner warned that the relaxed national guidelines regarding pothole repairs could lead to more cyclists being killed.

“The government has released some more money, but I don’t know what they’re doing with it,” said Uzzell. “The roads aren’t improving.”

This was clear on the bumpy network Morrell wanted fixed in Banbury, Oxfordshire, where he took me on a pothole tour. The town, which neighbours the Cotswolds, is a picturesque haven of commuter-belt calm. But the state of its roads – which made the car bounce as we surveyed them – led Morrell to threaten legal action in April. The council agreed to resurface two locations.

The Banbury constituency has been Conservative-held since 1922. We passed a sign to Chipping Norton, the tweedy heart of David Cameron’s social set. Oxfordshire has the seventh-highest number of potholes in the country. Indeed, England’s ten most-potholed highway authorities, topped by Surrey, are all Tory-run.

Could the government lose core voters over this? “If MPs are looking at an election in the future, it’s going to be a major problem. People vote on what influences their day-to-day life, isn’t it?” Morrell warned, grimacing at the cratered road ahead.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?