I am extremely grateful to Cllr Kevin Bentley, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, for taking the time to speak with me over Zoom at the weekend to hear my concerns about local highways issues.
Many of you have been contacting me about the current state of the roads, not just in Billericay but across the whole borough and I appreciated Councillor Bentley taking the time to hear my concerns. As many of you will know, I work in highways for one of the London boroughs and have done so for nearly eight years now, so I am well aware of the challenges.
The first thing to stress is that, as a highways officer myself, I know only too well that it is simply impracticable to operate a defect-free highway network. I also want to pay tribute to the Essex Highways crews, who I know have been out working tirelessly throughout the pandemic to repair potholes, following a winter which has been particularly tough on our roads, exacerbated by the effect of Covid-19 on staffing levels. I think it is important that is not overlooked.
Nevertheless, I outlined to Councillor Bentley the concerns that have been communicated to me by residents about the current condition of many of our roads and pavements (I mentioned, in particular, Jacksons Lane, Valley Road and Hillside Road in my ward, by way of example). Councillor Bentley explained that a combination of prolonged wet spells with heavy rain and flooding, followed by frosts, snow and extreme cold (down to –10ºC at one point) had caused more potholes to form, as water got under road surfaces, froze, then broke up the surface.
He advised that repeats of this cycle, plus the regular movement of heavy traffic, can worsen potholes quickly. This winter in Essex has been the coldest in a decade and Essex Highways is aware of a significant increase in the number of potholes across the highway network as a result, including Basildon Borough.
Yet, despite the weather and Covid-19 limiting their ability to respond, Essex Highways crews still fixed 589 potholes in December and 815 in January, including all the extra potholes logged to be fixed with extra investment under the member-led initiative. [Some of you may recall my asking you to let me know of potholes in your area back in July last year and I sent a large list of nominations to our two county councillors, Tony Hedley and Richard Moore, which Essex Highways are now working through.]
In our conversation, Councillor Bentley was keen to stress that, even with all the extra investment Essex County Council is putting into highways repairs – and the additional money they have received from Central Government (an extra £5m) – it is still necessary to prioritise repairs, with safety necessarily the prime factor. He told me, “Safety is critical – we assess all potholes identified and the most safety-critical are dealt with first. Sometimes a pothole is assessed as needing an urgent fix. In those cases we can’t wait to arrange to do a permanent repair – so instead we fill the hole with cold asphalt. This is a ‘make-safe’ repair to keep the public safe. We will then record it for later further action.”
I know that these “make-safe” repairs are often a concept residents struggle with. I put this to Councillor Bentley, who explained: “Make-safe repairs are just what it says on the tin. They can be done quickly so that the road doesn’t have to be closed for long and they are usually filled higher than the surface and are then worn in by traffic. They don’t look pretty and at this time of year may only last a few weeks, particularly if the weather remains adverse and traffic is heavy, but they are a vital technique, used all over the UK. If we didn’t have this tactic, the annual pothole repair budget would be bust in a few winter weeks!”
In respect of the weather challenges, he added: “As the extremes of winter hopefully recede, our crews will accelerate the battle to catch up with permanent repairs as we do every year. We have extra money from the Government’s pothole fund and now that the County Council budget has been approved we are already planning resurfacing whole sections of roads as the weather improves.”
You can read all about how Essex Highways inspect, assess and prioritise potholes for repair here.
All road surfacing information, including a map, can be found at www.essex.gov.uk/surfacing.