OK, I’ll agree, the state of our roads in Oxfordshire is shocking.
As I journey around the district on my bike and by car I can see the number of cracks, holes and ravines as much as any other other road user and the situation is unacceptable.
But our roads didn’t get into this state in just the last 2 years!
The Conservatives have been grandstanding in this election about potholes and blaming the Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition on the County Council for the situation. But it’s no worse now than it was under the last Conservative controlled administration. In fact it’s probably a bit better in terms of how responsive our road management team are.
I appreciate that seeing so many potholes is frustrating. I’m reporting them every day and they have become more numerous recently after the changeable weather. Crews are out every day fixing them but it’s a battle to try to get the worst ones prioritised and everyone understandably wants to see those in their area fixed first. But the problem with repairing them is not lack of willingness by the council, it’s lack of money/resources.
Not a new problem
During the last year of the Tory run administration on OCC a story was run in the Oxford Mail which reported that an insurance company had ranked Oxfordshire fifth worst for the number of potholes reported between 2015 and 2018. Figures showed 93,112 potholes were reported during that period amounting to 19.6 potholes per km of road.
The figures, from The Insurance Emporium, showed other areas worse than Oxfordshire include East Riding of Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Edinburgh and in top spot Devon as the worst for potholes. From personal experience I’d add our sister county Buckinghamshire to that list having driven though there recently, their roads make ours look like billiard tables!
But the current state of the roads is something that has been building up for years due to lack of investment by successive governments. I’m not even going to blame the Conservatives for it (as they are trying to do to us now) except to say that, as a Conservative administration themselves, they could probably have leant on the government a bit more to stump up some extra cash for repairs instead of borrowing their way out of the problem and saddling us with yet more debt that taxpayers will carry for years. Even then they still didn’t sort the problem out, because quite frankly it’s not sortable without massive investment.
Oxfordshire’s highways need about £45m a year just to stop them getting any worse. The council get less than a third of that from government and another third from local taxation. Some of the remaining third is covered by borrowing that was taken out by the previous administration that will run out in 2025 (although we’ll be paying millions in interest for many years to come). No one really knows where the funding will come from to cover that when that happens. A good chunk of that funding also goes on bridge repairs, and as many of you will have noticed, our bridges are also falling apart as well and if we have a catastrophic bridge failure the result could be a lot more serious than a puncture!
Our existing roads, are essentially worn out due to lack of proper maintenance for decades. The main cause of this is lack of central government funding made worse by the austerity measures during the last 10 years. It would now cost billions across the county to bring them all up to a decent standard and that doesn’t include pathways.
In the meantime the government forces local authorities to build more roads through “growth schemes” tied to essential housing that they won’t provide enough funding to maintain in the future. So the deficit continues to widen.
Lets stop playing politics over potholes. Every party blames the other for the state of the roads , but ultimately it’s a matter of investment. We all hate potholes and we all know they shouldn’t be there, but it’s daft to suggest that not fixing them is a deliberate choice for any controlling administration. If we had the spare money, don’t you think we’d spend it just to get the problem off our desks? And before people jump on the usual “if you didn’t spend it on this or that, you could fix X number of potholes” remember that government is all about making those decisions. A few £100K here or there is never going to fix the problems we have with road maintenance now we need billions if we’re going to sort this mess out.
As an administration we are absolutely focussed on doing the best with what we have on pothole repairs. The response time on repairs is now much better, but I accept there’s still room for improvement, particularly in terms of the longevity of some of the repairs. But we are going to need serious cash if we’re going to meet residents’ expectations and any politician who tells you otherwise is just using this issue as a campaigning tool. The only ways to get those funds is an increase in council tax, a reduction in other vital services or a very significant injection of funding from the government – and I don’t mean the paltry £3m or so that they recently announced for Oxfordshire coincidentally just before the local elections!
So if you really want to see a longer term systemic improvement you need to lobby the government to properly support local authorities. While you’re at it, you could mention a similar situation with health and social care, especially as they’ve just cut promised funding for carers in half!