IT’S A LONG-HELD JOKE that the way to get elected is to start a local pothole campaign. It’s a political love-hate relationship with something that recurs year after year. It’s British politics through and through; satirical, an excuse to have a moan, it’s all largely weather related, and yet we always sound surprised when every winter there are more holes in the road than the SNPs plan for a Scottish currency.
Some weeks ago, I asked my Facebook followers for their opinion on the state of the roads in the West of Scotland. The outpouring of responses was enormous and the issue sparked a frenzy of debate and contributions, but I was particularly struck by one comment left by a user.
“In Scotland we no longer drive on the left of the road, we drive on what is left of the road.”
This sums up a lot of the anger that Scots experience every day. Our roads are in a shocking state; driving, which is an absolute necessity for many, is increasingly dangerous.
Motorists are regularly faced with gaping potholes they need to swerve to avoid, as well as flooding and surface deterioration. As an MSP, like many, I am regularly contacted by constituents who have incurred costs of hundreds of pounds in repair works to their cars, ranging from anything from a cracked windshield to their bumper falling off, as a direct result of the poor condition of the roads. The only people winning here are the garages.
Motorists are angry at the costs, concerned about their safety and dismayed at the neglect paid to this issue. Swerving to avoid potholes is the new norm on the M77 – a good day for many is simply making it home with their tyres still intact. A bad day might see you lose your bumper. I am afraid it’s only a matter of time before a worse outcome arises.
A recent report by the BBC found that 30 per cent of Scottish A-roads were classed as red or amber, rising to 35 per cent for B-roads – totalling 2,964 miles of roads that were in need of urgent repair. In England, the figures are 3 and 5 per cent respectively. Consider that for a second: one third of Scottish roads are damaged to the point that they need be to repaired, a full 30 per cent more than the roads south of the border.
Our trunk roads don’t fare much better – a recent Audit Scotland report found that 13 per cent of trunk roads in Scotland were in what they described as an “unacceptable condition”. Let’s put that in perspective, an independent public body has deemed over one tenth of our road network to be unfit for purpose. This is despite us being one of the largest economies in the world and receiving higher than average spend per head through the Barnett Formula. It’s quite an achievement on the part of the SNP.
Is it any wonder that Scots are increasingly frustrated with the state of things?
We’ve found ourselves in the situation that, for motorists and cyclists alike, driving is becoming increasingly dangerous. Not because of the weather, not because Scotland has a problem with speeding, but because the Scottish Government has ignored road maintenance for the decade it’s been in power and now the cracks are well and truly starting to show.
There are 154,000 potholes in Scotland. Stacked on top of each other, they have a combined depth of 6,354 – that’s 1.2 x the depth of the Mediterranean Sea, four miles, or the same height as 4,234 cars stacked on top of each other. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s a direct result of the SNP’s decision to cut road maintenance funding by a fifth over the last seven years – a cut of £137 million since 2010.
Scotland has more potholes than any single English region, Wales or Northern Ireland. Our nearest rival, the South West of England, trails us by 16,000 potholes. To give some perspective, Scotland has more potholes than Wales, Northern Ireland, the East Midlands and the South East of England combined. We account for 16 per cent of all potholes across the entire United Kingdom.
Compensation claims are up 130 per cent in the last four years; looking over 10 years, the figure skyrockets to £2 million. The situation simply isn’t tenable. Local authorities are stuck in an impossible cycle of not having enough money to fix the roads and then having to shell out what little budget they have to compensate motorists for pothole damage.
Indeed, the latest figures show that council funding has been slashed each year since 2013, despite the increasing budget of the SNP. The situation is nothing short of dreadful.
We need fit-for-purpose, high-quality roads so that Scotland can go about its daily life. We understand that driving is a necessity for many people and businesses and that it’s becoming increasingly dangerous with the growing number of potholes, flooding and cracks on our roads.
But this is rarely discussed in Holyrood. To an outside observer it would appear as if the only issue the SNP government care about is independence, but it’s potholes, not the constitution that people want to talk about. It might seem bizarre to the SNP that Scots are more concerned about the state of their roads than whether it’s Westminster or Holyrood who are going to decide on food labelling standards, but it’s precisely the lack of attention being afforded to everyday issues that have led to our roads being the state that they are in.
I recently announced a Roads Maintenance Fund whereby we would commit £100 million over the course of the next parliament to bring our roads back into an acceptable state. We’re clear that fixing our roads will be an absolute priority.
We’re potentially facing a decade of work to undo the damage of neglect. The Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland estimates that it will cost at least £1.6 billion to remove all significant road defects. Unless action is taken now, we could be faced with broken roads until at least 2030.
Whilst we are on the subject of road infrastructure, we need to shift the focus from an obsession with central belt, PR bursting projects which leave places like the Highlands, the Islands, Ayrshire or the Northern Isles behind by a mile. The £1.6 billion spent on the Queensferry Crossing has done nothing to reduce congestion, improve commuting speeds, reduce journey times or traffic levels.
There is no doubt it is a monumental piece of infrastructure; I was there at its opening. I sat there in my poncho on a typical wet Autumnal day, glancing at the marvel in the distance. There is no debate about the magnificence of it, there is debate however about where and how we invest in Scotland.
If commuters from Fife are still sitting at average speeds of 25 mph on a Bridge which cost the taxpayer a few billion pounds, whilst roads outside of the suburban Central belt are crumbling and decaying, it’s no great surprise that people wonder how and where their tax money is being directed.
So, my “Save Our Roads” campaign is more than tabloid hyperbole. It’s a plea to government to focus on the things that matter to folk. Getting to work, taking their kids to school, improving air quality, saving for holidays not tyres. That sort of thing.
Politics is about everyday things, so by that rationale, potholes are politics.
Jamie Greene is Shadow Transport Minister and a Conservative member for West of Scotland in the Scottish Parliament.