Britain’s pothole blight – sweeping new super-powers and hundreds of “Sinkhole Supremos” announced by the DfT, 1 April 2023

With local election-fever now gripping the country from Berwick to Bodmin, a recently published government survey has revealed the number-one concern among England’s voters. Not council tax bills, social care provision, unacceptable planning decisions or lack of school funding, though these occupied numbers two to five in the list. What came top – and by what a government source described as “a huge margin” – was the issue of potholes.

“The whole country’s talking about them,” DfT Pothole Press Officer Marcus Lupin told me during a Zoom call early in the morning of 1 April. “Even the PM flew up to Darlington yesterday just to be photographed laughing at one. There’s no doubt that the pothole problem is now officially a thing.”

I asked him how many potholes there were in the country. “We estimate somewhere about ten million,” he said. “And, what’s more, they’re increasing. Multiplying. Spreading.”

“Why?”

“We don’t know. Frightening, isn’t it?”

So, I asked: what’s the plan?

“We have a four-pronged plan,” he told me. I was quietly impressed: most government plans have only three prongs. There was clearly big thinking at work here.

“The first prong,” Lupin told me, “is what we call Personal Responsibility.”

“Driving round them, you mean?”

“No, no. If there’s a pothole on a stretch of road you use a lot, who has the most incentive to fix it? You! So, we’re going to be sourcing “Hole-be-gone” kits for all motorists to keep in the boot of their car. If they see a pothole, they’ll be expected to stop and fill it. A pair of before-and-after photos uploaded to the new Pot App will earn them a £1 voucher, redeemable against future road-tax payments.” He sat back in his chair and nodded at me.

“Won’t that be dangerous?”

“Well, it depends how you define “dangerous”. Many would think it’s dangerous to drive a Volvo at 60mph into one of these infernal sinkholes that are opening up all over our roads.”

Was this not the councils’ responsibility? “It’s impossible to get the staff,” he said. “Over a hundred councils are already pulling people off front-line duties in social care and eduction to crack this…this epidemic, this “pothole plague” as the Minister has apply called it. I know of several CEOs who regularly work nights on A roads. There’s one council in southern England where all the planning enforcement officers have been detailed on this as well. We must make no mistake – this is a crisis of Covid-like proportions.”

“At least the potholes aren’t mutating,” I said.

Mr Lupin looked away and started biting his nails. “We’re not even sure about that,” he said at last.

“Hold on,” I said, “this reminds me of a scheme you trialled in, when was it? – oh yes, 2020, at just this time of year.  You were going to send out kits to people to replace the old cat’s eyes in the roads. What happened to that?”

“Before my time,” he replied stiffly. “I believe the officer responsible for that is no longer with the Department.”

“So, how much will these kits cost?”

“Hundreds of millions of pounds,” he told me proudly. “That shows the scope of our ambition to crack this. Fortunately, we have a list of preferred PPE suppliers from the pandemic who’ve quoted for re-purposing the billions of medical items that were deemed sub-standard.”

“Melt them down and use them to plug the gaps, in other words?”

“The word I used was “re-purposing”,” he reminded me.

“OK,” I said slowly. “So, what’s the second prong?”

His expression brightened. “Pothole Czars. We’ll be providing funds for every highway authority to appoint a “sinkhole supremo”, as we call them – don’t quote me, please, that’s just the Minister’s joke – plus one assistant for every five thousand miles of road in the district.”

“How much will this cost?”

“Hundreds of millions of pounds,” he told me proudly.

“I see. What will they do?”

“The details are still being worked out. But, basically, they’ll have sweeping powers to…to, well, fix potholes. Cut through red tape. Knock heads together. Prioritise problem-solving sessions. Get the country moving again. Help hard-working families…”

I put my hand up. “I get the drift,” I said. “What’s the cost of this?”

“All the officers, assistants, consultants, benefits, equipment, support staff…”

“Yes, yes?”

“We’re looking at hundreds of millions of pounds. Again, this shows that the government is prepared to meet the challenge head on.”

“I see. And the third prong?”

“Ah yes,” he said. “We’re pleased with this one. Legislation.”

I asked if the plan was to make potholes illegal.

“Well, it can’t hurt, can it? Gives us another string to our bow. However, the legislation will also link back to the first prong. We aim to introduce a bill in the next session of parliament which will make it illegal for anyone to drive over a pothole and not use their “Hole-be-gone” kit to mend it.”

How, I asked, would that be enforced?

“CCTV,” he replied promptly.

“But there aren’t CCTV cameras on every stretch of road in the country.”

“Not at present,” he said. There was a brief silence.”Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of investment needed…”

“Costing hundreds of millions of pounds?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

“You have one more prong left.”

“Indeed we do,” he agreed, rubbing his hands together and sitting forward in his chair. “New powers.”

“But isn’t that in the third prong…linking back to the first prong?”

“No, no,” he said. “Not those sort of powers – laws, regulations…I mean, well, power. Real, special powers.”

“Super-powers?”

“He held his hand up. “I didn’t say that. But I should have more to tell you in a few weeks. We’re working on something which, well…put it like this – it will change the way potholes are dealt with. Forever.”

As well as I could, I made my hand into a laser gun and affected shooting something on the ground.

“Who knows?” Mr Lupin said.

“And how much will this cost?”

“We haven’t finalised the figures yet,” he said. “But off the record…”

“Of course.”

“Hundreds of millions of pounds,” he told me proudly.

Brian Quinn

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