How can we fix the pothole crisis?

Who is responsible for keeping the roads hazard-free?

Local highway authorities – normally county, district or unitary councils – have a duty to keep public highways in good repair, and to repair any hazards or defects when they occur.

There are complications, however, as not all roads are publicly maintained, and some sections of road (such as railway level crossings) may be maintained by other bodies.

Other complications arise on major roads, such as trunk roads (maintained by the Highways Agency and their various private contractors), motorways, and Red Routes in London (maintained by Transport for London).

Members of the public can report defects and hazards to the highway authority, who will then make the necessary repairs. Each authority has a different timescale according to the danger a particular hazard poses, so it is important to be accurate when reporting road defects.

Why are there so many potholes?

Most councils and councillors want to see potholes fixed, but chronic underfunding of local roads (part of a wider local authority funding crisis) by central government has left our roads in a sorry state of repair, putting lives at risk, and deterring many people from cycling.

The 2023 estimate by Asphalt UK found that it would now cost £14 billion to fix the backlog of carriageway repairs.

Government investment is heavily weighted towards motorways and major roads, leaving the local roads people use the most severely underfunded. Short term funding, often announced through headline-grabbing ‘pothole funds’ fail to tackle the root of the problem: councils need longer-term certainty so they can properly repair their roads, as opposed to constantly playing catch-up.

As well as running Fill that hole, Cycling UK campaigns locally and nationally to ensure that local authorities have road maintenance policies which prioritise the needs of cyclists, and that sufficient investment is made into the local roads cyclists use most often.

In November 2023, the Government in England did commit to a long-term pothole fund, with £8.2bn committed over the next 11 years, which is a big step in the right direction and testament to the value of our and others’ campaigning – and all the more reason to report potholes so the money goes to the right places!

You can support Cycling UK’s campaigning by becoming a member today.

What counts as a road hazard?

A hazard, as far as this site is concerned, is anything in surface of the road which is likely to cause damage or injury e.g. by causing a cyclist to need to swerve or to lose balance. A hazard does not need to be large to be dangerous: even a small crack can be dangerous to a cyclist with narrow wheels.

Road hazards can be physical defects in the carriageway, such as potholes, sunken manhole covers and cracks in the tarmac, or temporary hazards like spilt oil or gravel.

Highway authorities, however, have limited budgets, funded with your taxes. They have to decide which hazards they fix and which they leave unfixed. Some authorities have a standard set of measurements, such as hole size and depth, and they will only fix hazards that are worse than these standards.

Why hasn't my pothole been fixed yet?

Some potholes are fixed within a day or two, where the council team can find the hazard quickly and the weather is good enough for a fix. Others can take longer. Chronic underfunding has also made it difficult for authorities to keep on top of the ever-growing pothole crisis.

Wet or cold weather can prevent a long-lasting fix, so the highway maintenance team may fill the hole as a temporary measure. They will then return when the weather has improved to effect a more permanent and high-quality fix.

Councils typically have defined "intervention levels", such as "at least 40mm deep". These vary by council, but are used to help prioritise which potholes need fixing and which don't appear to pose too much of a hazard to road users. This is important in winter when each authority can potentially have up to ten thousand pothole reports to handle. Sadly these levels are generally set with motor vehicles in mind, and they don't allow for the fact that even shallow holes can potentially catch a cyclist's front wheel and cause them to be thrown off without warning. So if you consider even a shallow road defect to be dangerous for cyclists, please do still report it!

Some potholes are never fixed, because the road foundations aren't strong enough, and completely re-building the road isn't possible.

What does the law say?

If you want to get into the detail of the legislation, laws relating to highway maintenance are mainly contained in the Highways Act 1980. The following links go direct to the government's website and the actual wording of relevant parts of the Act: