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A sticking plaster for a pothole?

The recent government announcement of increased funding for potholes will come as good news for councils and contractors, but will it help or just store up problems for later down the line?

In the Budget the chancellor announced that £200m has been allocated to mend potholes in the country’s ravaged road network. While this sounds good, it is not clear whether this will fix the problem – and it may not materially help struggling highways contractors.

Storing up problems for later

First is the issue of whether a quick fix is actually a sensible investment. Estimates are that this allowance may patch approximately three to four million potholes.

But unless the cause of the pothole is addressed by more than a patch, it will come back with a bit of bad weather and traffic. And next winter there will be even more.

Operationally, councils all operate their budgets differently. It is by no means clear how this money will be applied, as allocation isn’t being dictated centrally. 

“As potholes proliferate, motorists are also becoming more educated on making claims for things such as burst tyres and dented alloys – we even hear tales of claims for new suits”

Instead, the 148 highways authorities in the country will have to bid for this money. Given the time constraints, this is unlikely to be carried out in a manner that reflects the needs of the authority but will instead reflect their abilities to put a bid in.

As a result, it is likely that not all councils will see the money; instead, it will probably be allocated to those that shout loudest.

Money diverted to liability claims

There is also the possibility that funds may not even reach the relevant highways maintenance budget, let alone actually addressing the causes of potholes. The funds might actually be used to discharge related liabilities.

“The structure of highways budgeting in this country means there is actually considerable capital money available for highways infrastructure schemes”

This week has already seen a landmark ruling where a cyclist was awarded nearly £70,000 in damages as a result of injuries sustained from hitting a pothole.

As potholes proliferate, motorists are also becoming more educated on making claims for things such as burst tyres and dented alloys – we even hear tales of claims for new suits (supposedly to replace ones irreparably damaged while changing a wheel).

Depending on how a maintenance contract is structured, a contractor may already be bearing the brunt of these claims rather than the authority.

Budgets will remain tight

The structure of highways budgeting in this country means there is actually considerable capital money available for highways infrastructure schemes; there is just no routine money available to maintain highways once built. 

Last June’s Infrastructure Report produced by the Treasury showed the government’s long-term spending plans will contain no increase in local authority maintenance budgets for the next seven years.

As a result, it is no surprise the government has to release slush funds for matters such as routine pothole repairs, as otherwise there is no allocation in the existing budgets for this.

Just like the potholes themselves, the maintenance budgets mean our highways network will probably need another sticking plaster next year.

Robert Blundell is a partner at Holman Fenwick Willan

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