Parties will promise big projects and bigger budgets, but sustainability is the missing ingredient
It’s the perennial demand of local authorities, the world over and in whatever form they take – “fill the potholes”. It is, however, a demand that no local government official, no matter how obliging, can fulfil – potholes will just keep appearing. As well as a key issue in the upcoming local elections, potholes represent an apt metaphor for the problem facing local authorities across the transport policy portfolio – an area where stakeholders say progress has stalled and where rising costs for residents haven’t always meant better services.
Potholes represent more than just an annoyance; Paul Watters, transport policy spokesman for the AA, calls them a “blight”.
Watters wants to see “a much more long-term, strategic approach to road maintenance”, but with finance in short supply, and Scotland’s roads still bearing the scars of two consecutive harsh winters, that approach seems far off.
An AA survey in October last year found that Scottish roads had on average one third more potholes than were found in England; figures also revealed last year showed that the backlog in repairs is rising by £200m in repair work to £2.6bn, as of June 2011. Repairs aren’t the only way the potholes cost local authorities – they can seriously harm motorists, and in the five years leading up to 2011, local authorities across Scotland spent £1.7m on compensation claims for incidents involving potholes.
As a result, party groups in Scotland’s cities are making road repairs a key element of their transport policies. The SNP in Edinburgh is promising an extra £20m injection into the road repairs budget, while in Glasgow it is pledging to crack down on faulty repair jobs. Glasgow Labour has also promised an increased repair budget targeted at potholes, while in Dundee the party has promised an audit of the city’s roads.
However, away from the campaign trail, there’s a recognition that spending to repair roads in the face of rising demand and an increasing backlog is not a sustainable use of overstretched local authority resources. Following the AA’s study, COSLA President Pat Watters warned that road repairs had to be weighed against more visible services, like elderly care and education, and that increasing road usage made tackling the problem more difficult. The AA claims that current repair practices aren’t helping either; Paul Watters says that rushing to repair each bit of damage as it is reported leads to poor quality work and extra cost. “It’s crazy to go and partly fill [a pothole] and then go out and properly fill it. We’ve been doing too much reactive work; it’s not orderly, with people darting out to fix potholes, and another one comes a few days later on the same road,” he says. Tackling dangerous potholes is a priority, but leaving others until a proper resurfacing job can be undertaken would be less disruptive, and less costly in the long term.
The approach to road repair raises the question of whether the values of prevention and partnership working imparted by various recent examinations of public service delivery, such as the Christie Commission, have been absorbed into the transport portfolio as effectively as other areas.
“Councils are very well aware, like everybody else, that they have got to try to stop the problem from happening,” says Alison Hay, COSLA spokeswoman for regeneration and development.
Hay is concerned, however, that more sustainable approaches to transport issues are being held at arms length because of delays in key policy reviews – such as the Scottish Government’s road maintenance review, which won’t report until June. “We really need a review of the national transport plan,” says Hay; “it’s long overdue, and it’s been put on the back burner. In fact, there are a number of reports at a national level that could do with being refreshed, especially when you’ve got the policies and performance review saying that we need to reduce carbon. We really need to make sure that what we’re saying at the national level is joined up, so we need to look at all of these documents at a national level, and at the moment the government doesn’t seem to be wishing to review them. I think it’s time that they did.” The provision of bus services offers an example of the kind of disjointed transport policy environment that Hay alleges exists. Bus services have come to the boil just in time to become a key battleground in this year’s local elections; at the beginning of April, FirstGroup – Scotland’s largest public transport operator – announced that it was closing a major depot at Musselburgh, shedding 200 jobs and threatening services to isolated communities in rural East Lothian and Midlothian. The towns of Ormiston, Pencaitland, Whitecraig and Elphinstone in East Lothian, and Cousland, Millerhill and Newton Village in Midlothian would be cut off from any public transport provision entirely. FirstGroup – which made a profit before tax of £127.2m in 2011 – cited as its reasons rising petrol prices, the overall economic climate, and a 20 per cent cut to the Scottish Government’s Bus Service Operators’ Grants, which drew condemnation from across local authority boundaries and party lines at the end of March.
How FirstGroup’s retreat will affect the individual commuter at the bus shelter depends on where that person lives. In East Lothian, travellers can expect no interruption to their service at all, after their local council announced – just a day after FirstGroup revealed its plans – that a new publicly owned bus operator would step into the breach. Officials from East Lothian Council have held talks with Transport Secretary Keith Brown, with the possibility that the new company, which would serve just 95,000 customers, could receive a service grant from the Scottish Government.
Presented with the same set of problems, neighbouring Midlothian council have arrived at an entirely different set of conclusions. The routes that FirstGroup will be withdrawing from in the next four to 12 weeks in Midlothian won’t be picked up by a council-backed bus operator: a spokesman says that the local authority don’t see that as a cost-effective solution, and that setting up a replacement service to all affected areas within that timescale would be impossible. The council claims it would also be open to a legal challenge if any private operator subsequently wanted to set up a service on a publicly run route, as the state subsidies cannot be used in a manner that undermines competition.
Midlothian Council has instead entered into talks with local privately run bus operators about replacing FirstGroup on affected routes, and is awaiting a response from potential partners.
In even more remote areas of Scotland, forming sustainable transport policy will mean addressing the lack of infrastructure and public transport service in innovative ways. According to Hay, in parts of rural Scotland, particularly along the West coast, there simply is no transport provision if you don’t own a car. With that situation likely to endure in the short term, providing other incentives for businesses and individuals to remain in local communities is essential. That means tackling rural broadband, Hay says. “I could go and make a cup of tea in the time it takes for me to get online, and it’s just not acceptable, especially if you are looking to bring business and keep people in the rural areas and give them an equality of opportunity. In some parts of Argyll we still have the ADSL dial up; it’s just ridiculous.
“Even if you want to order a ticket – as simple as that – it will take you forever, and at the minute it’s a possibility that not too far from where I am, one of the ticket offices is going to close. You won’t be able to buy a ticket locally in the whole of mid-Argyll, you’ll have to either use your computer or go to Campbeltown. How are elderly people going to do that? How are tourists going to manage? We need quick high speed broadband, not only for connecting people but to keep people there and preserve jobs.”