Matthew Parris in today’s Times – it’s a sign of the times when a deep blue Tory says “enough is enough”! But it will NEVER be enough for your political masters , Matthew … as long as the people at the bottom of this stinking heap bear the brunt and you – and those high above you – live in your golden bubbles and prosper.
“I blame myself. My bicycle boy-racer days should have been over. I’d had two whiskies at the Duke of York, the night was dark, the lane was narrow and I knew well enough there were potholes. This one was a stonker. Crash, bang, wallop. Anyway I survived. I broke a few ribs but the crash helmet did its job, the ribs healed, the bruises faded and I live to tell the tale more than a year later.
I tell it now more as parable than anecdote. In a couple of weeks come important local government elections in many places. We don’t think enough about local government, whose job it was to mend that pothole.
But by starting with a me-and-my-pothole story I risk sounding like a parody of one of those ghastly charity appeals on the radio, showcasing the plight of some victim, typically a child. “So poor little Matthew fell off his bike. For just £5 your local council could fix that pothole. Please send your donation, however small, to HM Treasury, Great George Street . . .”
My story is trivial compared with cuts which for others may have meant the loss of social care in dementia, no Sure Start centre for a child, the closure of a small local hospital or the end of a vital local bus service. So is there a connection?
Yes. Throughout history rings the cry “It’s when it happens to you . . .”. Austerity often doesn’t “happen” to people like me (and many of you) as fast, as often or as painfully as it does to millions of others. But potholes we Times readers see. When in our own lives our nearside front tyre is shredded, the ruddy pothole represents a momentary twitching-back of one tiny corner of a great curtain, behind which lie, no, not potholes, but a million anxious human stories, caused in part by cuts in public spending.
And, no, I’m not going to decry cutting public spending. Much of it had to happen. But I’m making two points. First, the exercise cannot be without limit. Second, the time-lag between the cut and the pain can be so long that by the time you feel the pain the cut may have gone much deeper than you noticed. We need to wake up to that.
So back, without apology, to potholes. Thanks to another of these, a friend in Lincolnshire has just broken his neck, though not fatally, thank heaven. Potholes matter in themselves. But they are a parable for others that matter even more.
Over roughly the last decade (my figures don’t cover 2017) spending on roads by councils has fallen by about a fifth. Serious injuries to cyclists have trebled, while cyclists’ numbers have increased by a fraction of that. According to the RAC, the number of cars needing roadside assistance after hitting potholes has almost doubled since January.
According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance there are 24,000 miles of roads urgently awaiting repair in England and Wales. On present trends a road is resurfaced every 78 years and it would now take 14 years, and more than £9 billion, to return the network to a “steady state”. Our roads have been crumbling.
Roads spending has just started to rise, albeit gently. Late in the day, local and central government politicians have woken up to what’s happening.
The trouble is, it’s already happened. Voters in their millions, including Times readers in huge numbers, are telling them so. Just as my little argument with Mawstone Lane was a parable for a wider problem with potholes nationwide, so potholes nationwide are a parable for a problem far wider than that. We may be deceived by the fact that you can get away for years, but not for ever, with pushing a problem to one side.
All the pressures on those who run government, local and central, are to worry about the short-term. George Osborne had the aftermath of a world economic crash to get Britain through. Philip Hammond has Brexit. And when the Devil drives (as in politics he always does) and if you can block your ears to the caterwauling of those who always cry wolf anyway, it is usually possible to leave issues like road maintenance, decaying school buildings, rotting prisons, social care for the elderly, Britain’s military preparedness or a cash-strapped health service, to tread water for years or even decades. “They’ll get by,” say fiscal hawks, and in the short-term they’re often right.
Nobody’s likely to invade us; the NHS is used to squeezing slightly more out of not enough; cutting pre-school provision is hardly the Slaughter of the Innocents; the elderly won’t all get dementia at once; there’s little public sympathy for prisoners; teachers can place a bucket under the hole in the roof; and road users can dodge potholes.
In the case of local government Mr Osborne found you could slash, not snip. It has lost, unbelievably, almost 50 per cent of what it gets from the general taxpayer in less than a decade. But, hey, the rubbish is still collected.
All this has encouraged those, like me, of a Conservative disposition who see state wastefulness everywhere, to think that maybe you can just keep on cutting and never reach bone. For so it has often seemed, however urgent the shrieks of doom-mongers.
But beneath the surface problems build up. The old get older, and more numerous. Potholes start breaking cyclists’ necks. Care homes start going under. The Crown Prosecution Service begins to flounder. We run out of social housing. Prisoners riot. And is there really no link between things like pre-schooling, sports and leisure centres and local outreach work, and the discouragement of knife crime? It all takes time, though.
In that most unfashionable thing, public administration, the life cycle of a problem may be counted in decades, even generations. The cycle of an elected politician’s term is four or five years. Democratic politics and good public administration march to different drumbeats.
When New Labour was elected in 1997 we Tories groaned as it tipper-trucked money into the NHS, school building and other public services. But after 18 years of saying no, we had let an undersupply arise: of bricks, mortar, equipment, wages, staff and morale — invisible on any Treasury balance sheet. Thirteen years later when Labour left office the undersupply was monetary, the red ink all too visible.
Must we forever oscillate like this? Probably. Unless politics understands this paradox: the right time to fill a pothole is before it’s a pothole.”