On the road
Ask the average person what local issue most annoys them and chances are they’ll mention dog poo or potholes. While politicians at Holyrood and Westminster spend their days debating the big issues, it is the councillors and local authorities who are on the ground dealing with the so-called small problems which affect every part of the country. However, with local authorities still picking up the pieces after two bad winters in 2009/10 and 2010/11, the state of Scotland’s roads has become a big and expensive issue.
Figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives through freedom of information requests reveal councils across Scotland are spending more than £1,600 a day compensating drivers whose cars have been damaged by potholes. Motorists were reimbursed to the tune of £584,745 in 2012/13, with the five-year total now standing at more than £2.7m. The amounts paid out by local authorities for repairs such as burst tyres and suspension damage vary considerably. Last year, Glasgow paid out nearly £360,000 in compensation, by far the highest in Scotland. Elsewhere, Aberdeenshire was forced to settle £34,569 worth of claims, and the figure in Edinburgh was £27,642. However, others like Clackmannanshire and Moray did not have to pay any compensation to drivers in 2012/13.
Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Alex Johnstone MSP said: “The state of roads both in the city and the countryside are a matter of real concern for motorists. We need to make sure surfaces are kept in good condition, because investment in that would very much reduce the cash paid out in future. The true damage caused by potholes is likely to be far higher than this, because many drivers can’t face going through the official channels to try and recoup the money paid for repairs. Perhaps if the Scottish Government took more of a lead in properly investing in our road network and supporting motorists, it would encourage more councils to do the same. Only when the overall standard of roads is improved will we see these compensation figures come down.”
In response, a Scottish Government spokesman said local authorities are responsible for local roads in their area, including their general maintenance and pothole repair.
He added: “The Scottish Government has provided local government with over £10.3 billion in 2013/14 to allocate on the basis of local needs and priorities. Between 2007/08 and 2012/13 local government’s budget increased by 8.9 per cent demonstrating the strong financial settlements agreed during challenging financial times. In terms of Scottish Government’s responsibilities, we are fully committed to ensuring the trunk road network remains safe, efficient, and enables businesses and commuters to engage with each other more effectively. That is why we have invested over £2.6 billion on our roads and motorways since 2007. In 2013/14 we have invested over £700 million which will ensure we continue to deliver an extensive maintenance and improvement programme on our major A class roads and motorways, with road safety a key priority.”
In May last year, local government spending watchdog, the Accounts Commission, said major changes called for in 2011 had yet to result in a significant improvement in road conditions in Scotland. An audit update based on reports from local auditors, said the percentage of local roads in acceptable condition had marginally increased between 2011 and 2013, despite a 21 per cent reduction in spending between 2009/10 and 2010/11. However, the proportion of roads in acceptable condition is still lower than it was in 2005.
Then chairman of the Accounts Commission, John Baillie, said: “A well-maintained roads network is essential for all of us to get around in our daily lives and for economic prosperity. There is potential for better sharing of skills and resources, more effective planning at national and local level and more use of benchmarking to learn from best practice elsewhere.”
However, two councils are paving the way to better roads with an innovative partnership, launched at the start of April. The Ayrshire Roads Alliance has been established to deliver shared roads and transportation services to communities across east and south Ayrshire. The new shared service hopes to ensure a consistent standard of service delivery while improving efficiency and resilience. Savings of more than £8m are expected over the next 10 years, through reduced management and administrative costs plus better deals for larger orders. Led by East Ayrshire Council, the alliance will be jointly governed by a committee of elected members from East Ayrshire Council and South Ayrshire Council.
Transport Minister Keith Brown said: “The Ayrshire Roads Alliance is a great example of the National Roads Maintenance Review recommendations being put into practice. It will promote partnership working through shared road maintenance services and highlight new areas of collaboration to deliver excellent value for the public purse.
“Scotland’s road network plays a fundamental role in the continued success of key parts of the economy and the Scottish Government is committed to working with local government to improve road maintenance across the country.”
Councillor Douglas Reid, leader of East Ayrshire Council and chairman of the joint committee, said the alliance is the first of its kind in Scotland and reflects the recommendations of the Christie Commission, which published its report on the future of public services in 2011.
He added: “The report stated that Scotland needs to ‘embrace a radical, new, collaborative culture’, making a strong recommendation for public services to concentrate on preventative measures into the future and for public sector bodies to work closely to counter the squeeze on public spending – this is at the very heart of the Ayrshire Roads Alliance.
“The launch is the culmination of a great deal of work and expert planning by officers from East Ayrshire Council and South Ayrshire Council and heralds the future of roads and transportation service delivery in Scotland.”
Leader of South Ayrshire Council, Bill McIntosh, added that the alliance has been the result of a “huge amount” of effort within both councils.
He said: “We are very proud to be part of such an innovative approach to service delivery in conjunction with our partners in East Ayrshire and I am confident [the alliance] will have a very positive impact on how local government operates in the months and years ahead.”
The Ayrshire Roads Alliance will be responsible for the maintenance of public roads, bridges, footways and footpaths; street lighting; traffic calming and road safety; roads design and structural design; parking enforcement and mobility; bus infrastructure and interchange facilities; and winter maintenance.
Highland Council is also trying to change the way road repairs are carried out by making use of technology. Two Highland communities have signed up for a pilot scheme to use new methods to report common road defects, such as potholes and faulty street lights.
Representatives of Stratherrick and Foyers Community Council and Strathglass Community Council are working with Highland Council’s community services to trial the system, whereby they use GPS-enabled mobile devices to record faults and forward to the council for action and inclusion in a local repair and action plan. The council has said this will mean better communication of when work will be done and should lead to better planning for the council to reduce duplication and costs of multiple visits where several issues can be dealt with at one visit.
William Gilfillan, Highland Council’s director of community services, said: “Our goal in community services is to be more customer-focused and responsive to community concerns about the “everyday” things that matter to communities, such as faulty street lights and potholes. We need to be better at consistently communicating with our communities and this pilot will help us do so. If the pilots prove to have the value that we anticipate to communities, then we would seek to roll this approach out across the Highlands. We had originally intended to use special equipment for the pilot but new developments in technology mean that we can now allow access through a range of mobile devices which should further reduce costs and extend the capacity of the community.”
Meanwhile, walking charity Living Streets Scotland has said the decline in the amount of money being invested in footway maintenance by Scotland’s local authorities is a “false economy” and will cost more in health bills. The charity’s findings show the proportion of money being spent on footways is declining.
The figures compiled from freedom of information enquiries made by Living Streets indicate footway maintenance spend in Scotland declined by 20.5 per cent between 2009 and 2013 – from £19.5m to £15.5m, despite total maintenance spend increasing from £137m to £150m over the same period.
Keith Irving, head of Living Streets Scotland, said: “We all depend on our footways to help us get around our communities on foot, pushing a buggy, or in a wheelchair. Problems of trip hazards, uneven surfaces and obstacles cause minor irritation to some but pose fundamental barriers for many vulnerable pedestrians.
“Living Streets Scotland has compiled data on what is actually spent on footway maintenance and we are concerned that the overall amount appears to be declining rapidly. Maintenance is not just about filling in potholes – it’s also about removing barriers that prevent people safely getting around their streets.”