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Sunday, 24 May 2015

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Motorists face pothole misery across Tynedale

POTHOLES; they’re everywhere – at least so it seems if you live in rural Tynedale.

Coun. Colin Horncastle takes a closer look at potholes on the Allendale to Allenheads road.

And if you happened to attend Northumberland County Council’s recent state of the area debate, chances are you were far from reassured by deputy leader Coun. Roger Styring’s comment that a “bucket of bodge” would be used to fill them in before going back later to do a proper job.

According to west area committee chairman, Coun. Colin Horncastle, Tynedale’s roads are in such poor condition, they are “almost beyond redemption”, with officers even considering the prospect that some should be closed.

Hexham MP Guy Opperman, likewise, has gone as far as to say potholes in the area are “on the verge of becoming life-threatening” – and now he has asked Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to come and take a look.

“I want the minister to come and see for himself the shocking state of our roads and potholes here,” he said.

“The county council has repeatedly failed to act and things are becoming dangerous.”

The council, though, may think differently.

Last year, it repaired roughly 10,500 potholes, divided pretty much equally among the three county council areas.

In essence, different places have their own inspector and a response crew to carry out the work, which – in theory anyway – should be looked at afterwards and assessed through specific quality criteria.

According to Ross Bullerwell, a highways area manager who covers the stretch from Berwick to Haltwhistle, there are hundreds of variables that could affect what action is taken, ranging from the size of the pothole, to the level of traffic on the road, to the chance of the hole causing an accident.

“It may be that a temporary repair is suitable,” Mr Bullerwell said.

“In that case, it would be what I call a ‘flat and pat’ exercise, putting Tarmac and bitumen in the hole, providing a temporary cover until a permanent repair can be carried out once the road is resurfaced.

“Smaller roads tend to get a whole lot more – about 30 potholes per km – and we can repair between 30 and 40 potholes a day, depending on location.

“A permanent repair is more costly and we wouldn’t want to do that if there were plans to resurface the road.”

Mr Bullerwell added the council worked on a system of prioritisation, aiming to fix the most dangerous potholes within two hours and potholes in less hazardous areas such as cul-de-sacs or estates within 28 days.

Why, then, have potholes become such a problem?

On a surface level – no pun intended – the weather has been terrible. Terrible weather equals water, which freezes under cracks, expands, then melts away.

There’s also a common perception, though, that roads have been under-invested in for too long – and even the current executive member for highways, Coun. Alan Thompson, agrees this is the case.

Putting a figure on how much would be allocated to the problem, though, is tricky, he said, as the £70m budget that included highways also incorporated neighbourhood services and planning.

Likewise, filling in holes was only part of the equation, as the council was turning its attention largely to prevention, rather than cure.

“We have done an audit of all our highways assets,” he said.

“We know precisely what we have and we have a very good idea of the condition of each of those assets.

“We know what the main priorities are.”

Among them, certainly, are ditches, the current administration dealing with some that had not been attended to for decades.

Road resurfacing, repairs to the roadside, fixing retaining walls and other flooding prevention measures would also have to be taken into account.

To do so, the council – like others up and down the country – is able to attract Government funding.

However, as leader Coun. Jeff Reid pointed out at the west area debate, where this went was unpredictable – out of £3.9m recently designated for highways, £3m will go towards remedying the recent landslide in Rothbury.

So is rural Tynedale being neglected in favour of other areas?

“It’s crazy to say that,” said Coun. Thompson, who points out the prioritisation principles apply across the county.

With regard to what Hexham’s Coun. Ingrid Brook described “shoddy” pothole repairs, crumbling after a week or two, he said: “It shouldn’t happen.

“We have a much better system for doing repairs now.

“We are using better technology.”

The council, he added, also had better management systems in place and commendable staff, whose work meant the authority was now getting “unprompted expressions of gratitude from all over the county”.

Members of the public and parish councils were also playing a crucial role in highlighting problems.

“I think that, right across the county, we are now in a position to deliver this better than it would have been delivered previously with a larger budget,” Coun. Thompson said.

“We are becoming more and more aware that there are problems in the west that need to be addressed, but I would hope that people would see improvements once we get the wetter weather over with.”