This week Lancashire County Council invited the media to see its pothole repair service in action.
Can Lancashire go from pothole hell to pothole heaven?
That was the question on every reporter’s lips as County Coun Keith Iddon, the county council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, stepped out on a bitter January morning to show the media the spade work involved in putting right the highways’ wrongs.
The Tory councillor was in no mood for excuses but stressed the weather had been merciless in the last few weeks, with frost and thaw and excessive rain adding to the road repairers’ and council’s woes. These were, he said, ”almost the perfect conditions to create potholes”.
He says he knows as well as anyone what a big issue these rogue holes in the road are for Lancastrian motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike.
The press outing had been called just days after the leader of the Labour opposition group County Coun Azhar Ali likened the state of some county roads to those in the third world and claimed Lancashire was becoming “the pothole capital of the north”.
Coun Iddon said: “We get a lot of criticism. We are under a lot of pressure at this time of the year when there is a lot of water and a lot of frost. I was out canvassing last week in Wyre. There was no other issue but potholes. The car you buy is the most expensive thing after a house and our roads have also to be safe to cycle and walk on.”
Some 76,000 potholes were reported in the financial year 2016/17. In just the first 16 days of this year there were 2,600 new pothole reports, with around 4,000 in total expected by the end of the month.
Coun Iddon points to the £7.7m allocated for pothole repairs in this financial year and said the council would be bidding for more funding from Government for continuing pothole repairs.
So just what is officially classed as pothole? The council considers a pothole to be “a sharp edged depression or hole at least 40mm deep on roads or 25mm deep on footways.”
Coun Iddon said: “We’re going out and looking for potholes and if they find them they’ll mend them. We’re being proactive.”
But he stressed in the same way you cannot paint the exterior of a house in current weather conditions nor can you adequately repair potholes.
The council is hoping its “new” weapon, use of an injection patching system, to be unveiled next month, weather permitting, will make a difference. This method of blasting hot asphalt under pressure into a hole was first used on a trial basis in the county last year.
Subcontractors will be employed and the council will pay for materials used. It will, officers predict, make the difference between a team repairing 25 to 30 potholes a day and getting 100 done.
Phil Durnell, Head of Service for highways, said: “It’s very weather dependant, it has to have dry conditions. We are bringing in six of these machines in February/March.”
Contracts have been awarded to three companies Velocity Patching, Nu Phalt and Jet Patcher.
Coun Iddon said: “We’re adapting - the old way doesn’t work and isn’t going to work. We have to have a new way of working.”
While all this pothole knowledge was being shared highway operatives John Dewhurst and William Purcell had been hard at work on a pothole repair the traditional way. Mr Durnell had earlier acknowledged that sometimes emergency repairs have to be temporary ones because that is all the weather conditions will allow. Such potholes are patched as a temporary holding measure to remove immediate dangers. But this was a bespoke demonstration of a made-to-last repair.
It took nearly half an hour to dig out the damaged area on Moss Side Lane, Chipping, cutting a larger rectangle outline, then stripping off loose material and remaining pieces of tarmac in the manner of a turf cutter, piece by neat piece.
Water constantly poured off the land filling the hole which had to be swept out again, before being treated with a special “tack coat”, a liquid which helps to waterproof the repair and make a better bond between the existing road surface and the bitumen used for repair. The hot bitumen was then shovelled over the area. Finally the patch was compacted.
It was demanding, and at times noisy, labour but the text-book results were sufficient to put a smile on the face of any motorist or cyclist who has previously dodged that particular “hole” in the road.
John Dewhurst, who must hear his share of disgruntled county residents’ complaints about our holey highways, said: “You enjoy it when you have the finished result and it’s permanent.”
Checking the roads
In Lancashire 10 county council inspectors go out and about year-round assessing the state of county roads.
Major A roads and motorways and town centre high streets are inspected monthly, major pedestrian routes weekly B and C routes every three months and rural roads and residential estate roads annually.
If a pothole is so dangerous it needs an emergency repair this will be completed within four hours and if needed the council says an inspector will remain on site to “guard against incident.”
Other potholes should be repaired within one, five or 20 days depending on the priority they are given.
At peak repair times a team of 70 can be out and about working to fill in potholes on county highways. Some 40 will be direct council employees and the remainder subcontracted staff.
The council says its major ABC route are in “good condition” and “improving” but acknowledges there are problems on its rural roads. These will be a priority for the new injection patch repairers.
Meanwhile when a team is sent out to repair a pothole it is asked to check the surrounding area and fix any nearby which meet “intervention” levels.
Apart from the permanent repair method and the new “find and fix” where a velocity patching team will be sent out to look for potholes on roads where the council knows most potholes appear, it says it is also investing in resurfacing in a bid to prevent new potholes. Some £20m has been allocated in this year’s budget to fully resurface or patch and surface dress roads.
The council acknowledges it does not always fix the worst damage first, saying it uses survey data to decide the right time to target repairs.
Its policy instead, it says, is to focus resources on intervening “to stop roads deteriorating before more expensive and time-consuming work is needed.”
The council’s long term strategy Transport Asset Management Plan introduced in 2015 by the last Labour run a administration focused on carrying out preventative maintenance.
The state of our roads
Annual defects repaired including potholes:
2016/17 76,000 defects
2015/16 56,598 defects
2014/15 67,556 defects
New year statistics
January 2018 - At mid-month there were 2,600 outstanding defects across the county
January 2017 - 3,884 potholes reported
January 2016- 4,062 potholes reported
January 2015 - 3,773 potholes reported
How to report pothole problems.
If the public report a pothole problem the site will be inspected and repairs prioritised according to their urgency.
A council spokesman said: “People can help us by giving as much detail on the nature and location of the pothole as they can.”
Call the council’s customer contact centre on 0300 123 6780, email firstname.lastname@example.org or look for the link to report faults at www.lancashire.gov.uk