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Is this the road with the worst potholes in Britain?

One of the potholes in Station Road in Pilsley, Derbyshire
One of the potholes in Station Road in Pilsley, Derbyshire - Andrew Fox

On a misty morning in the Peak District, Fran O’Dwyer and Bridget Vallance are out for their usual daily walk. They are heading from the close where they both live in Pilsley, Derbyshire, through the village and out for a good stomp in the cold. It would almost be a perfect bucolic winter scene if it weren’t for the cars throwing up bits of gravel and grit from the road as they bomb past, spraying the front windows of houses on the south side of the street. “I bet that’s awful when they drop in that hole,” says Fran, looking over at a terraced house opposite, which is currently at the mercy of a two-inch deep pothole.

“We’ve been here 40-odd years and it’s always been a bad road, this one,” says Bridget, 73, a retired physio assistant, as we walk down Station Road. “Oh it’s been bad a long time.” Lately, it’s been getting worse. “We’ve got caravans and you can’t come up here with them because if you drop in [the potholes] it breaks all your mover equipment. If you went in that hole there it’d rip it off.”

Repairs are made periodically. “All they do is top cover it,” says Fran, 67, a retired mental health worker. “Then when it’s rained it all gets washed out again and you end up with the big holes.

“That’s starting to come through again now,” she says, pointing to a patch that looks to be on the verge of causing problems. “It won’t be long.”

'It's always been a bad road, this one,' says a resident of Station Road, Pilsey
'It's always been a bad road, this one,' says a resident of Station Road, Pilsey - Andrew Fox

Half a mile up the street, work appears to have stopped abruptly, the remaining stretch of road left riddled with holes. “I couldn’t understand it. They closed this road off for quite a few days and they only did up there and didn’t come down here. So what was the point of that?”

Derbyshire was recently declared the worst offender in the country for potholes. “I can believe it,” says Bridget, whose husband Pete rings the council “regularly” in vain attempts to get them to address the state of one road or another. RAC figures released in September had the county at the top of the leaderboard for the highest number of potholes per region in the UK at 90,596.

But Derbyshire is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Neighbouring Staffordshire came out worst for response times – a pair of Irish twins could be born in the time it takes the council to fill in a pothole in Stoke-on-Trent, where an average of 657 days can pass before you have a hope of getting one seen to. Westminster was next with a 556-day average wait time. Norfolk followed at 482.

In 2023, potholes are as much a national affliction as they are a national obsession. We come by it honestly – spend just a few minutes scrolling through the hundreds of village Facebook pages dedicated to the topic and you’ll get some sense of the extent to which Britain’s pothole problem has spun out of control.

Around the country, people’s journeys to work and school are plagued by them. They are at least maintaining a sense of humour on the topic in Lewes, East Sussex, where the bonfire society burned “Pothole Pete” on Guy Fawkes night this year. “An indistinguishable civil servant who stands and doesn’t deliver on road maintenance in the various counties south of London,” as one attendee, Adrian Brune, put it. Meanwhile in Plumtree, Nottinghamshire, people grew so exasperated complaining to the council about a pothole they threw it a party on its second birthday to make a point, sticking three candles in a Colin the Caterpillar and placing it next to the hole.

And who could forget Sir Rod Stewart’s heroics in Essex last year? He took matters into his own hands on a road by his estate in Harlow. “This is the state of the road near where I live. It’s been like this for ages. People are bashing their cars up and the other day there was an ambulance with a burst tyre.”

The clincher? “My Ferrari can’t go through here at all.” Understandably, Sir Rod and “the boys” thought they’d get a truck load of gravel and tackle it themselves.

Sir Rod Stewart took matters into his own hands when the singer was so concerned about his local roads in Essex last year
Sir Rod Stewart took matters into his own hands when the singer was so concerned about his local roads in Essex last year - Rod Stewart/Instagram

The last time our roads were in any sort of respectable state, John Major was Prime Minister. Our roads are the worst they have been since at least 1995, according to The Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey. There are almost 11 million more cars registered in Britain now than there were in 1995 – talk about cause and effect.

Potholes are the scourge of cyclists – Cycle-SOS, a national legal helpline, says 21 per cent of cyclists in the UK have been involved in an accident because of a pothole. They cause huge problems for motorists too. The RAC declared 2023 the worst year for breakdowns caused by potholes in five years; pothole-related breakdowns cost a driver up to £440. They also said more than a third of drivers are forced to swerve lanes to avoid them. The AA concurs – potholes accounted for 460,000 callouts in the first nine months of 2023, nearly a fifth more than 2022.

Weather is partly to blame – the RAC says the deterioration is thanks to “several spells of well below average temperatures interspersed with some very wet conditions last winter”. That might just sound like an average British winter, but it apparently meant water was “getting into cracks, freezing and expanding”, causing road surfaces to deteriorate “rapidly”.

“It’s also important to note that last winter wasn’t particularly harsh, which demonstrates very clearly just how fragile our local roads really are.

“The fact councils are paying out money to drivers whose vehicles suffered pothole damage is another damning indictment of the state of our roads.”

Potholes, such as this one in Gilcroft Street, Skegby, Derbyshire are costing motorists money with car repairs needed
Potholes, such as this one in Gilcroft Street, Skegby, Derbyshire are costing motorists money with car repairs needed - Andrew Fox

In the Pilsley village store, Corner Cuts, talk turns to a particularly menacing pothole outside the village’s Jehovah’s Witness hall. “I put a massive dent in the alloy wheel of our car last year,” says Karen*. “Took a big chunk of it down the back and everything,” says her husband, Mark. “It was all over the Spotted Pilsley page on Facebook – because it’s dark, people were hitting it and someone had a £160 tyre bill because they’d hit it and it blew the tyre off.”

A man pipes up from the back of the shop. “Have you seen that one just outside the Chinese?” They have. “They resurfaced it but they just did the top layer,” says Mark. “We’ve had all that bad weather so it’s washed it all away.” Around here, he says, you always have to drive with potholes in mind. “If you don’t watch it you get dinted rims, flat tyres, everything.”

Derbyshire County Council (DCC) says it is making “big investments” to improve road conditions. This year has seen 34.5 miles of roads “surface dressed”. The council says it fixed 100,000 potholes last year. This year, they’d fixed 82,000 by mid November. “Given the exceptionally wet summer we have been repairing more potholes in our roads at a time when we’d expect to see reports fall,” said Councillor Charlotte Cupit, DCC’s Cabinet Member for Highways Assets and Transport. “We are working hard to try to rise to these challenges.”

Comparing data between local authorities, she said, doesn’t give a complete picture. “The Derbyshire data, unlike other council areas, includes many miles of minor B and C roads as well as motorways and A roads which are looked after by National Highways, not us.”

Part of the problem, experts say, is that when a local authority finally gets to a pothole, they’ll often just have it patched up rather than relaying a whole stretch of road. “It’s like icing a rotten cake,” says the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), which represents asphalt producers and contractors. “The cake is still rotten even if you’re icing it.” A pothole, they say, is “a sign of a road on the edge”.

“They’re not inevitable,” says chair Rick Green, “they are the symptom of a network that has been underfunded for many years.”

The AIA’s annual survey of our roads found that in England, resurfacing works now take place on average “once every 143 years”. English local authorities need an average of an extra “£8.5 million in funding each, just to reach their own target road conditions and prevent further deterioration”, Green says. “That’s before they can tackle the backlog of repairs which now stands at more than £106m per authority (£12 billion in total for England).”

Rishi Sunak with Darlington Council leader Jonathan Dulston (far right), Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (second from right) and Darlington MP Peter Gibson (far left) during a visit to County Durham where he discussed how budgets would be spent on fixing the region's roads and repairing potholes
Rishi Sunak with Darlington Council leader Jonathan Dulston (far right), Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (second from right) and Darlington MP Peter Gibson (far left) during a visit to County Durham where he discussed how budgets would be spent on fixing the region's roads and repairing potholes - Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

There is some good news on that front. When the Prime Minister dropped the second stretch of HS2, he pledged to redirect the billions of pounds in savings to new infrastructure. Instead, it’s to be spent on repairing the infrastructure we already have – our roads. This month, the Government announced almost a quarter of the savings made from scrapping the promised second leg of HS2 would be used to resurface local roads (as opposed to so-called “strategic roads” – motorways and dual carriageways that are not dependent on local authority money). That’s £8.3 billion on potholes which, Green says, has the potential to be “a real game changer”.

£8.3 billion for potholes sounds like a lot – less so if you consider Britain’s roads are in the worst state they have been in for some time. You only have to pick a particularly egregious pothole near you and go back through the years on Google Street View to watch the deterioration in real time. On some streets, you’ll be able to see how one tiny spot has been causing problems for over a decade. On others, you might see how a construction boom has played its part.

Just over the border in Nottinghamshire, Helen Underwood has seen the short, hilly road she grew up on in Skegby deteriorate rapidly in the last year. “I’ve lived on the street all my life and I’ve never known it this bad,” she says. When did it start to decline? When building works began.

“There’s a new building plot on the top – it was a green belt, it shouldn’t have been built on there but that’s by the by, they’ve built on it now – they weren’t supposed to use this road for access, but they are doing. All the time.”

Since then it’s got “progressively worse and worse and worse”, says Helen. “And they don’t attempt to come and do anything about it.”

Potholes in St Andrew's Street, Skegby, Derbyshir
It's not just causing problems for motorists, potholes are a safety hazard for cyclists and those using mobility scooters too - Andrew Fox

Helen, 53, who works in a social club in Skegby, wants the road to be fixed partly for her dad, who lives a few doors up and uses a mobility scooter. “He struggles getting down the road and crossing over because the potholes are that bad.” Instead, he has to bump down to the bottom of the hill over uneven pavement “which is a bit dangerous”. “He used to go across the road and up the dropped kerbs but he can’t do that now because the potholes are that bad.”

Yesterday, she took a picture of a particularly bad hole and sent it to her local councillor. “Whether anything will be done about it…”

She may like to set her watch for a year’s time. Or, if Skegby follows the average wait time in England, make that 143 years time.

*name has been changed. 

Roads of shame: examples of potholes left unfilled for years

What to do if you have pothole problems  – according to campaigner Mark Morrell, aka ‘Mr Pothole’

How do you expedite a pothole repair if the council aren’t doing anything?

“First of all, you can report it using the council’s online systems. However, if it’s a safety hazard, many of them have a number you can ring to make them aware. And if it’s an emergency, they should fix it within two hours. In the real world, they don’t respond to that half the time – I’ve been forced to call 101, the police, and then surprise, surprise, it’s been repaired within two hours because it’s come via that. Not a good use of resources. Other than that, I have used social media. One of the benefits of X (formerly known as Twitter) is you can tag the council. Many of them have a highway authority account. If it’s safe to do so, take photographs, tag the local councillor or the council responsible and the local MP and media. Social media is very powerful that way.”

When the council does ‘fix’ it, how do I ensure it’s not a shonky patch-up job that will reappear in six months?

“Unfortunately, you can’t… to be fair to councils, they haven’t got the money to fix the roads properly. But at least if it’s that dangerous, it needs to be made safe. So you’d have to accept a temporary repair. But longer term, really, you want a permanent repair, otherwise it’s the same situation where that fails or the area around it fails.”

My car has been damaged by a pothole –  how do I force the council to compensate me?

“You can make a claim. Ideally get photographs showing the depth and size of it and location of the defect, and also the actual damage to your vehicle, and an invoice. Many councils have claims procedures you’ll have to follow through. But the majority of them will decline it saying they have a regular inspection regime and it wasn’t picked up on their inspections. They didn’t know about it and they’ve got a legal defence under Section 58 of the Highways Act. Very few people actually manage to win claims and you have to prove that they haven’t met their own inspections or repairs policy.”

What rights do cyclists have if they are injured cycling over a pothole?

“A similar claims process applies. If you’re injured, really, you need professional legal advice – there are specialist lawyers that deal with cycling injuries.”

There have been reports of new housing developments and building works causing potholes. Can I use this as a way to campaign against them?

“It’s very difficult because obviously, we need the housing stock. The only problem is that people have problems with new developments, which is quite common, as they increase the use of heavy goods vehicles. You would hope that the highways authority would look at that when it comes to the situation and development, but they can’t really refuse it under planning grounds. As far as the developer is concerned it’s up to the council to keep the roads up to standards. So it gets very difficult and complicated.”

How useful are websites like FixMyStreet?

“Very useful. They’re actually adopted by a number of authorities now, it’s become their reporting system. You can put photographs there and it’s more visible. I’ve reported potholes on FixMyStreet and I’ve then copied the link and put that on social media, tagging the council, the highways authority and the councillor. They clearly can’t say they didn’t know about it.”

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