I was delighted to host Murdo Fraser MSP and his right-hand man Graeme Rose on a visit to Crail and Anstruther on a gloriously sunny morning recently. He came down to help me in my campaign for the Council election, but it was also an excellent opportunity for Murdo to get to know better some of the far-flung corners of his patch – he’s a List MSP for Mid-Scotland, an area stretching from Crianlarich in the west to Crail in the east.
Murdo was also wearing his other hat as which is why we visited various small businesses to hear how they were faring.
The most common issue small businesses had with Fife Council was sadly not unique to them: potholes and the poor condition of our roads. As anyone who has chapped doors in the East Neuk and beyond knows, it is the number one complaint.
Like many people who live outside the larger settlements in the East Neuk, I can’t go anywhere without driving. Without realising, I have developed advanced off-road driving skills as what are supposed to be roads approach the condition of muddy, uneven tracks. I am required to spot and avoid the ever-growing potholes, and to negotiate puddles which are really small floods of indeterminate depth. Some potholes are so deep they could cause a puncture or worse if I hit them.
How much worse is the situation for people whose living depends on road use? Many small businesses rely on the local road network to deliver goods and services, and if this is not in good nick, it costs these businesses time as well as extra wear and tear on their vehicles. In the end, in one way or another, we all bear the cost of inadequately maintained roads.
Non-drivers using our roads and pavements are liable to get hurt. In the last couple of weeks residents have told me about tripping on uneven roads and pavements – a particular hazard for older people and the less mobile – and coming off bicycles because they’ve hit potholes. It’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured.
One of the small business owners we visited said he felt ashamed about the state of our roads when he thought about visitors coming to the East Neuk. It’s relatively rare to find a rural road sign which isn’t broken, rusty or dirty, and many seem like unsightly, unnecessary clutter which should be removed; street names, especially in conservation areas in our coastal settlements, are dirty and peeling. Litter is another bugbear, and although there is nowhere in the Neuk as bad as stretches of the A92, it adds to the general impression that our roads are unkempt and unlooked after.
So what is to be done? Fife Council has been salami-slicing the budget for roads for years – hoping, as with so many small cuts to services, that people won’t notice. But that only works in the short term because as the cuts pile up, they do begin to make themselves felt – we’ve got the same situation in our schools and health service. The solution is obvious – up the budget and put in place a repair plan to clear the backlog of neglect plus a sustainable longer-term maintenance plan. One of the things this should do is revise the rule of only filling potholes of 4cm and more on roads and 3cm on pavements, which results in the ludicrous situation of Council workers filling a 4cm hole but leaving the 3.5cm hole next to it for another visit in a month’s time. I suspect the cuts have created a lot of short-term fudges which may save money in the short term and make it look as if the Council is doing something, but are actually ineffectual and a lot more expensive in the longer term.
Conservatives on Fife Council successfully fought for a £200,000 uplift for roads in the recent Council budget, but the Labour administration limited this to only two years. With more Conservative councillors after May, we will, I hope, be able to push for a much bigger, permanent increase. It is a sign of how out of touch Fife Council has become, how disconnected from the people it is supposed to serve, that it has been able to dismiss the near universal concern about the state of our roads for so long.