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Channel 4’s Dispatches reveals exclusive findings on potholes, traffic reducing schemes (LTNs) and electric vehicle charging prices

The War on Britain’s Motorists: Dispatches, Thursday 23 May 8pm, Channel 4

The War on Britain’s Motorists: Dispatches, Thursday 23 May 8pm, Channel 4
The War on Britain’s Motorists: Dispatches, Thursday 23 May 8pm, Channel 4
  • From a FOI data request, local councils who responded received 1 million pothole reports last year, with £56 million spent on repairs
  • Nearly a third of councils who responded overspent on budget repairs
  • Research reveals a disparity into how road defects are actioned; a third of councils who responded only fix potholes when they reach a specific depth
  • FOI data reveals that 80% of pothole compensation claims were rejected by the councils that responded
  • Motorists in 16 UK councils have issued fines of over £118 million for LTN violations since January 2023
  • Of the 31 local councils who shared information about the traffic reducing schemes they had introduced, 42% were unable to provide any prior monitoring or evaluation for the trial schemes before installing them on their streets
  • The Department for Transport admits for the first time that on average, charging an electric vehicle (EV) on a public network costs around the same as fuelling a petrol car
  • UK head of manufacturing group behind Vauxhall and Peugeot warns that government mandate towards electric cars poses risk to British automotive sector

Britain’s roads are in crisis. With potholes seemingly everywhere, battles over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), and confusion over electric cars, Dispatches investigates if it’s the worst time ever to be a motorist. Reporter and motoring journalist Ginny Buckley speaks to drivers who’ve been badly affected by potholes, asks whether councils are really doing all they can to fix them, and explores how much the damage they cause is costing the taxpayer. Ginny also explores controversial LTN schemes and reveals the money some are bringing in from fining motorists. She also looks at another contentious topic - electric cars. Are electric charging companies asking too much for charging? And will the country ever really be ready to switch to a fossil-fuel-free future?


UK’s pothole bill

Alongside the RAC, Dispatches investigated Britain’s pothole crisis, sending Freedom of Information requests to the 206 councils responsible for roads across the UK.

The investigation found that the councils who responded spent £56 million repairing potholes and also revealed a combined total of over 1m pothole reports from those councils, since the beginning of 2023, with 40% of these local authorities reporting that they do not have budget specifically allocated to potholes outside of general road repairs. Of those councils who responded and confirmed they have a pothole budget, nearly a third (29%) report overspending, with some outlaying two or three times more funds than that which had been allocated to pothole repairs.

The research also revealed the disparity across local councils in actioning repairs to a road defect. Nearly a third (29%) of the 206 councils in Great Britain with responsibility for roads don’t state any criteria publicly online for repairing potholes while just over a third (35%) list specific depths, and in some cases widths, and 37% (76 councils) say they take a ‘risk-based approach’ to deciding which potholes to fix and how quickly.  Among the 35% of councils that say they will only act on potholes if they meet certain criteria, the most common depth stated is 4cm (54 councils) but in the case of six council, potholes need to be at least 5cm deep to be considered for repair. Thirteen local authorities state only those at least 30cm wide and 4cm deep will get fixed.

From the FOI, 167 of those councils that responded with information, the combined compensation bill paid for pothole damage since the beginning of 2023 was over £4 million. In the 12 months up to March this year, the RAC attended 27,000 pothole incidents on Britain’s roads - a 9% increase. The breakdown service company, which has over 13 million members in the UK, has calculated drivers of a typical family car can expect to have to pay up to £460 if their car needs to go to a garage after hitting a pothole. Motorists challenging local councils for compensation for pothole repairs may find their claims struggle to meet opaque criteria. The 79 councils who provided Dispatches with information revealed they rejected 80% of claims. One reason for this is councils need to agree that the road indentation in question actually constitutes a pothole in order to pay out.

Rod Dennis, Senior Policy Officer at RAC comments exclusively to Dispatches: “In some cases, councils are very upfront. In other places, there’s zero information from councils as to what is a pothole. It seems crazy that depending on where you live, you might have one council treating you one way, if you were to hit a pothole, and another council treating you completely differently.”

It’s not only local councils where potholes are impacting the public purse. In an FOI request to UK police forces, it was revealed that 11 police forces alone have faced a total pothole repair bill to their cars of over £80,000 between January 2023 and March this year.

While the government has pledged £8.3 billion from abandoned HS2 budget towards tackling potholes, recent analysis by an economic consultancy suggested potholes are costing the economy in England £14.4 billion pounds a year.

Rod Dennis, Senior Policy Officer at RAC tells Dispatches that the government’s pledge doesn’t go far enough: “We don’t feel the national government has got a proper grip on just how bad the situation on our roads really is. £8.3 billion, while it sounds like a lot, is staggered over the course of a decade, and all that would be enough to do would be to resurface Essex’s roads and leave the rest of the country’s roads exactly as they are today.”

In response to the findings, the Department for Transport told Channel 4 Dispatches: “Our additional £8.3 billion is the biggest ever increase in funding for local highways maintenance – enough to resurface the equivalent of over 5,000 miles of roads across the country. Local authorities received the first £150m of this increase in October and will receive a further £150m this year. We’re also requiring local councils to publish regular reports of which roads they are resurfacing with this extra money, so taxpayers can see how their money is being spent by their local council.”

The Local Government Association, a membership body representing over 300 local authorities, told Dispatches: “Councils are on the side of all road users and want to focus on properly resurfacing our roads. Councils would much prefer to focus on preventative repairs. The Government should award council Highways Departments five-yearly funding allocations to develop resurfacing programmes and other improvements to help prevent potholes in the first place.”


Low Traffic Nightmare?

Dispatches looked into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) schemes, which have divided opinions around the country, with the investigation making a series of Freedom of Information requests to local authorities across the UK. A total of 31 local councils shared information with Dispatches about traffic reducing schemes (LTNs) they had introduced, with 42% of those unable to provide any prior monitoring or evaluation for the trial schemes before installing them on their streets, indicating challenges in evaluating whether the schemes had proved to be successful. Information from the 16 UK councils who responded to the FOI request revealed that a combined total of over £118m of fines had been issued to motorists for LTN violations since January 2023.

The Local Government Association commented: “Councils want to take a balanced approach to ensuring that motor traffic keeps moving, whist protecting other road users so that everyone can benefit from safer streets. Any surplus income from {traffic} fines has to be spent on transport improvements by law, such as providing vital bus services or highway improvement, including fixing potholes.”

The Department for Transport rolled out new funding for LTN schemes across England in 2020 with local councils across the country soon implementing schemes to make it easier for people to walk and cycle in their communities. These changes included reshaping roads and introducing modal filters to reduce the number of motor vehicles using streets as through roads.

Around 1 in 5 LTNs introduced around the country have so far been dismantled. Reporter Ginny Buckley heads to Withington in Greater Manchester to see just one of these examples, where in 2023, the council introduced an LTN to stop rat running vehicles, reduce pollution and encourage an active lifestyle for the local community. Residents questioned whether the scheme had been properly thought through, and successfully campaigned to have it removed.

Resident Tahir Jeffrey, who had a modal filter placed directly in front of his Withington home, tells Dispatches “It was an absolute nightmare. What we found was that it wasn’t reducing traffic, it was dispersing traffic.”

Despite the council’s best intentions, there were gaps in their preliminary research into the scheme. Kateryna Kryshkevich, a Withington resident and a specialist in active travel schemes like LTNs, tells Dispatches: “There was no data collected on pedestrian flows, on cycle flows on journey times. The councils should have provided evidence that there is a problem with through traffic through the neighbourhood, but this hasn’t been done.”

In response, Manchester City Council commented to Dispatches: “While data in Withington did show there were improvements being made, it was clear from the feedback that the majority of people surveyed were not satisfied with how it had been implemented. Throughout this entire scheme the council has wanted to make sure that local residents had a voice in how their community was shaped. Two filters have been retained and the council will be monitoring their impact. Safety has always been what the council aimed to achieve with this scheme.”


Electric Charging Chaos

Dispatches examines whether electric cars are as cost friendly as many believe. One of the big selling points for electric cars historically has been the idea that they’re cheaper to run than a petrol car. However, figures from the RAC have revealed that is no longer necessarily the case for consumers who charge their vehicles at public charger, and are unable to charge their electric vehicle (EV) at home. Whilst it costs on average 17 pence per mile to drive a petrol vehicle and 7 pence per mile to charge at home, using a public fast charger brings the cost per mile for drivers to a staggering 22 pence per mile, according to RAC Charge Watch figures for April 2024. One of the reasons is a disparity in VAT where consumers are charged 5% VAT for home energy but 20% VAT for energy taken from a public charger.

In response, ChargeUK, the trade association for the EV charging industry, told Channel 4 Dispatches: “ChargeUK members are committed to providing affordable charging. We are deploying new chargers at record pace, and ahead of demand, to support the transition to EVs. Government can make public charging even more affordable by addressing VAT on public charging and by tackling the recent surge in “standing charges” that public operators must pay on electricity, which have seen costs rocket by as much 300% in the last 12 months.”

The Department for Transport responded: “On average, charging an EV on a public network is around the same as fuelling a petrol car, and we have made it easier to compare prices across charging networks so drivers can get the best value.”

Motorists can continue to buy new petrol and diesel cars until 2035, but car manufacturers in the UK are being encouraged by government directive to produce and sell EVs at an even swifter rate. The Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate passed as a law in January of this year and obligates car makers to a certain percentage of new electric cars sales annually or face financial penalties. By 2030, 80% of new cars sold in the UK must be zero emission.

The new mandate has been described by government as “the most ambitious regulatory framework for the switch to electric vehicles of any country in the world” but has faced pushback within the automotive sector. Car manufacturer Stellantis, the maker of Vauxhall and Citroën cars, has warned that the ZEV mandate could see the organisation retreat from its production bases in the UK. Stellantis employs over 5,000 people in the UK and operates two manufacturing sites in Luton and Ellesmere Port.

In an exclusive interview with Dispatches, Stellantis UK’s Managing Director Maria Grazia Davino states: “There could be a risk to jobs here in the UK, to British jobs in automotive… [Stellantis UK] are doing heavy investment in this country, but if it does not work, then our set of investment could be subject to review.”

In response, The Department for Transport told Dispatches: “We have extensively engaged with industry before launching our zero-emission vehicle mandate to ensure it works for companies at different stages in the transition process, which we continue to support and have already invested more than £2 billion into.”

 [p]Any use of information/statistics in this release must credit: The War on Britain’s Motorists: Dispatches, Thursday 23 May 8pm, Channel 4


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