Susan van de Ven

Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Bassingbourn, Melbourn, Meldreth and Whaddon Learn more

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Sebastian Kindersley: Pot Hole Primer

by Susan van de Ven on 12 April, 2018

From Sebastian Kindersley, my colleague in neighbouring villages.  You can see the illustrated version on Facebook.

“There has been a great deal local concern about potholes. We too share the frustration, anger and vehicle damage that so many residents have experienced.

1) Why so many potholes?

I’ll start with some background. Every year all roads across Cambridgeshire are assessed by a complex piece of kit that measures the underlying state of the road and its substrate. When compared against set criteria Highways identify what roads need to be resurfaced in the Transport Delivery Plan. Matched with government directives the overarching focus is predominantly on the major road network.

2) So what? Where are potholes in all this?

Essentially, potholes form when both the upper layer of the road is poor and the substrate is poor as well. Highways try to ‘rebuild’ A and B roads so that much faster traffic is not exposed to dangerous conditions. Village roads are considered ‘slow’ and therefore don’t get as much funding. This means that potholes form because the underlying road condition is always worsening.

3) This is boring. My Council Tax is always going up – spend some of it on potholes.

Hard to believe but your Council Tax has been falling in real terms. Because inflation is greater than Council Tax increases (which for Cambridgeshire County Council have been 1.99% or zero over the last four years) the amount you pay in real value terms is dropping. Unfortunately costs, salaries, pension contributions etc have all been rising so the ‘buying’ power of CC is reducing. The County Council is also making cuts of £37m this year, having already cut upwards of £220m.

4) So there’s no money – what’s new?

It’s not just that there’s no money – it’s also that what money there is has reduced and is prioritised to A and B roads.

5) But some potholes get done…

Yes. There is a budget for potholes which the Highway Supervisor has to allocate across the very worst potholes across South Cambs. The County Council only repairs potholes that have reached the required depth/width/danger level – these ‘intervention levels’ have steadily got bigger over the years – in other words potholes have to be deeper, wider, more dangerous to get done this year than in previous years. This is why some get done when others in the same stretch don’t. The bottom line is that there is not enough cash to pay for all potholes.
The Highway Supervisor has exhausted his budget for this financial year and I suspect (although I can’t confirm) that he is borrowing against the next year’s budget. He is firefighting.

6) Well, Church Street/Shingay Road/the street where I live is a disgrace…

Yes it is. As many of you have highlighted some village streets are in a particularly bad way. You’ve been busy reporting this online (and please keep this up as it is the most effective way to report both for you and for the Engineer). At a meeting with County officers I asked them to drive down various bad roads including both Church Streets in Gamlingay and Guilden Morden so they could appreciate the problems. Their response is as follows: “I am afraid to say unless the Highway Officer comes across any discretionary money for resurfacing in next year’s reactive maintenance budget it will be a case of him judging it compared to other sites within his area to see where he can best spend his patching budget.”

7) Well, I pay my road tax – why aren’t we using it on roads?

Road tax was abolished in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty. This is a tax on cars, not roads, and it goes straight into the general Treasury fund. Lobby your MP!!

8) Next year the roads will be better ‘tho won’t they?

Nope. Well, very unlikely. Some years ago Cambridgeshire secured £90m to take an ‘asset management approach’ to road maintenance as encouraged by Government. For this loan to be used for road maintenance it was moved from the Council’s revenue account to its capital account and at the same time any existing revenue spend on road maintenance was reduced which of course made setting the council tax easier (ie with no increase for four years).
The original plan was to use the loan over 5 years. There were significant improvements in the state of the roads as measured in the annual survey in the first two years. However in 2015/16 it was decided to spread the loan over 10 years, and the annual spend was reduced by some 60%. The state of the roads has now deteriorated year on year.
We’re now 6 years in and the annual spend is down to £4.3 million with a final £3.1 million spend in 2021/22. After that there is no more money, we will still have a £90 million loan to repay and I reckon that our roads will be worse than they were when this program started. Much worse.

9) This is outrageous – who do I blame? Health & Safety? Red tape? The EU? Trump? I need answers – I’m going to write to someone.

There are three groups of people to blame. Firstly – Cambridgeshire County Councillors adopted a political position in the ‘70s and ‘80s of always being the lowest taxing Shire authority in the UK. It is still the third lowest. So we start at a much lower base than nearly everyone else – but a pothole costs much the same to repair in Guilden Morden or Gamlingay as Carlisle or Truro – and Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing area in the UK. Secondly, national politicians look to savings from local government over and above every other part of Government. Unlike Government which can run debts of billions of pounds County Councils cannot go into debt by 1p. And lastly, we live in a democracy so ultimately we get the level of services we vote for!

10) Huh. That’s right – blame the people. Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the Highways Team…
Indeed. I would say that I know officers of the County Council find it incredibly frustrating that lack of funds prevent them from doing the brilliant job they would like to do – and you and I find it incredibly frustrating that it’s the roads we use that suffer.

11) Well enough whining – what now?

We continue to campaign for better funding for roads and transport in all the Parishes in the Gamlingay Division. So it somewhat sickens us that even though the County Council has decided this year to increase the Council Tax to the maximum permitted that extra money will be going into the reserves – the County Council’s bank account – where it will remain in case of a ‘rainy day’. I don’t know what you think but I think the rainy day is here.”

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