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Grayling promises to fill ‘4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’ – and many more elsewhere

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Commentary on the government’s historic pledge that “all road users” will no longer have to “dodge potholes”

“We are giving councils even more funding to help repair their roads so all road users can enjoy their journeys without having to dodge potholes.”

Hurrah! The above statement from Chris Grayling was part of a Department for Transport announcement today of a £100m “pothole fund”.

At a generally gloomy time in which most public services are nearing breaking point, the transport secretary is promising to achieve a pretty sensational result. Mr Grayling claimed that, as a result of this investment – and remember that we’re quoting direct here – “all road users” will no longer have to “dodge potholes”. And a mere £100m is hardly going to be the straw that breaks the Treasury’s back!

This extra cash should fill “almost two million potholes”, a DfT press release states. It comes on top, we learn, of £75m from the “Pothole Action Fund” and a “£46m boost for highways authorities announced just before Christmas”. And, we are told, the extra money comes “on top of the record £6bn the government is providing local authorities between 2015 and 2021 to maintain and improve their roads”.

Mr Grayling has rightly appreciated, in his words, that the recent “unusually prolonged spell of freezing weather… has caused damage to our local roads”. His department allocated £2.5m to Devon CC whose A379 coastal route “was badly damaged by Storm Emma”.

Among the full list of authorities set to benefit, Blackburn with Darwen BC will notably receive £178,365. Assuming the council carries out its repairs at the national average cost of around £50 envisaged by the DfT, it should be able to fill 3,597 potholes – not too far off the 4,000 potholes the town had in 1967, as immortalised in the Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

The Daily Mail news in brief article which famously inspired the Beatles’ line (yes, it does seem unlikely that John Lennon was a Mail reader…) stated: “There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical, there are two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300,000 in London.”

So weirdly – assuming Sergeant Pepper era assumptions still hold true – it almost feels as if Mr Grayling has decided to rectify history’s most iconic pothole complaint. (We’ll leave aside the fact that County Borough of Blackburn merged with Darwen BC as a result of the Local Government Act 1972 to create a far bigger council – yes, we did use Wikipedia for that bit of research.) All two million potholes are to be filled!

So all well and good? Alas no. Martin Tett (Con), the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, cast doubt on the claim that this really would mean that no drivers would have to dodge potholes again. 

“The funding announced today will provide just over 1% of what is needed to tackle our current £9.3bn local roads repair backlog,” he said. “Councils are likely to need more support from the government as the full extent of the repairs needed after the recent winter weather has been made known, and we hope that the government will stand ready to provide this.”

Austerity-ravaged councils have had little scope but to target roads and highways for cuts. If it’s a choice between adult social care and children’s services, or filling in potholes, it’s not the latter option that triumphs. LGC’s last Confidence Survey, published in October, showed net confidence of -79% among senior officers that roads and highways expenditure would be protected from further cuts. This was the third lowest level of confidence, behind only street cleaning and trading standards.

So it’s very easy to pick holes in today’s government potholes announcement. Enough holes to fill the Albert Hall…

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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