The latest report by the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), just published, announced that vehicle breakdowns in Britain caused by potholes have now reached a five-year high. The number of potholes is also increasing – a stark contrast to the proud legacy over two centuries of the country leading the world in road-building technology.
200 years ago a UK Parliamentary enquiry endorsed the technical ideas of Scottish engineer John McAdam. He had developed an improved process for building roads by binding crushed stone with gravel cambered on a base of hard stones – “macadam” – which would become the global standard.
By the end of the nineteenth century most roads in Europe had followed the UK and adopted this process, but with the arrival of cars and lorries putting greater strain on road surfaces a more robust upgrade was clearly required. It would take a Nottinghamshire County surveyor, Edgar Hooley, in the early twentieth century to define and develop it. He had noticed that tar spilt on the roadway kept down the dust and created a smooth surface. Seeing the opportunity to produce more durable road surfaces, he devised his own heated tar to bind the crushed stones with waste blast-furnace slag compacted with a steamroller prior to lay-down. It was Hooley who registered the resulting process as the trademark “Tarmac” in 1901.
Having developed the technology, as so often it would be left to other countries to harness its benefits. By the time Britain’s first motorway opened in 1959 many European countries – notably Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium – were well advanced with their own motorway networks.
Since then technology in the 1920s advanced further away from the UK as asphalt (specifically asphalt-concrete) became the preferred material of choice, with rubberised asphalt including crumb-rubber from used tyres being a further innovation in the 1960s. Advantages of asphalt roadways include lower noise and cost together with greater ease of repair, and asphalt roads now account for over 95% of UK roads. Exactly fifty years ago this year the European Asphalt Pavement Association (EAPA) was set up to promote and develop the use of asphalt. Based in Brussels, the centre of gravity for road building technology is now anchored firmly in the EU.
The UK typically has its own independent association, and for the past 28 years the Asphalt Industry Alliance has produced an Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey, with the particularly appropriate acronym ALARM. The 2023 survey confirms that it is twenty times more expensive to do “reactive maintenance” to deal with problems rather than preventive maintenance in the first place. Despite that, local authorities in England and Wales only receive around two-thirds of what they need to prevent further deterioration. More than £14 billion – £68,000 for every mile of local road – is now needed to fix the growing backlog of road repairs.
In 2020/21 almost 1.7 million potholes were filled on local roads in England and Wales– equivalent to one every 19 seconds. In the last financial year National Highways spent £926 million maintaining the UK network of 4,800 miles. Local Councils however only received just over £1.1 million for their own road networks which are 185,200 miles long It should be no surprise that more and more potholes continue to appear throughout the country given the lack of money to fix them.
The 2022 RAC Report on Motoring revealed that 60% of drivers considered that UK road conditions were worse than previous years. Even when potholes have been filled in, 55% of drivers rated the standard of repairs as poor or very poor. The problem is even more acute in the north of the country: if the Government wants to ‘level up’ it could start by getting roads properly levelled.
Meanwhile the latest Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum ranks the best roads in Europe today as being in Austria, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and even little Croatia. The UK is not even in the top ten.
A report by the Automobile Association says that as many as half of Scotland’s motorists are worried about the growing (or should one say deepening) pothole problem, adding that there were regular breakdowns for punctures, wheel and suspension damage. Transport and Environment Convener, Councillor Scott Arthur, has admitted that that road maintenance in Edinburgh is under-funded, but that there is no immediate solution because here is no more money. However, the UK still has one claim to fame.
The Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothian, Miles Briggs, has commented: “the poor condition of the capital’s road is an ongoing issue. Motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians are reporting more and more potholes. Edinburgh has now become the pothole capital of Europe.”
200 years ago the UK led the world in road construction. Today it leads Europe in potholes – a sad sign of a country gone to pot.