UK ‘Pothole Epidemic’ follows The ‘Beast from the East’

As councils cut funding for road maintenance, injuries to pedestrians and damage to vehicles are set to rise

Compensation claims for injuries caused by defective roads and pavements - public liability.

The so called ‘Beast From The East’, the prolonged spell of wintry weather that hit the UK in February 2018, continues to have effects months later, even after one of the warmest and driest summers on record.

The AA has announced its profits have been hit, with an increase in potholes in British roads responsible for it having to respond to far more callouts than usual due to cars suffering damage. Injuries to pedestrians went up not only with people slipping on snow and ice. They are also likely to rise in the coming months as potholes result in more trips and falls.

The ‘Beast From The East’ was severe this year, but is nothing new. The UK regularly receives a bout of wintry weather when cold air comes in from Northern Europe.

The country’s roads are also unusually vulnerable to damage from ‘freeze-thaw’, where water in the form of rain or snow finds its way into the cracks in the roads, and expansion and contraction as the water freezes and then thaws opens up those cracks. Add in our relatively high population density meaning our roads receive more traffic than many other countries. We also tend to have more drains, cables and other services under our streets (with countless privatised utility companies allowed to dig up the roads – Transport for London calculated in 2010 that 1m holes were being dug every year in London alone). It is hardly surprising that potholes are a problem.

Most UK roads are maintained by local authorities. For example, most of Peterborough’s roads are the responsibility of the City Council. Whereas major roads in England such as motorways and trunk roads are maintained by Highways England.

Unfortunately the ‘Beast From The East’ has been made into a perfect storm by cuts to local council budgets since 2010. Northamptonshire County Council, for example, made the news by effectively running out of money. As a result it has cut back services to the bare minimum with road maintenance being heavily cut. Others are set to follow suit. Potholes and other damage to roads and pavements require constant maintenance and repair to keep on top of things and as time goes on their condition is likely to get worse.

Under the Highways Act 1980, local authorities and Highways England are under a legal duty to ensure the highways they look after are maintained in a reasonable condition. ‘Highways’ can include not just roads but pavements, footpaths, cycleways, bridleways and other non-private rights of way.

They should be kept in a reasonable condition appropriate to the sort of road or path they are and the sort of traffic (whether vehicles, pedestrians or animals) likely to use them. For example, an unsurfaced footpath in the countryside would be expected to be quite uneven whereas a paved area in a city centre should be kept in much better condition. Road surfaces should be kept in good condition, but in general only so as not to pose a significant risk of damage to vehicles and bicycles, not pedestrians. Risks posed by ice and snow should also be addressed.

The Highways Act also allows the authority responsible for them some leeway in how it goes about keeping roads and pavements safe. Essentially, if the authority can show that it took reasonable steps to ensure its highways were safe, it has a defence to any claim for compensation even if the highway in question was not safe and caused an accident. For example, a local council cannot be expected to know about every pothole that develops on all of its roads as soon as it appears. Instead, councils operate systems where people can report potholes and other problems to them. In addition, to catch anything that might not be reported, they will regularly carry out inspections of their roads (generally at least once a year) and carry out repairs where they are needed.

However, with cuts being made to council services, it is likely we can expect to see both inspections and repairs cut back and a rise in potholes, bad pavements and, as a result, accidents. A court case in 2011 ruled that councils cannot use budgetary pressures as an excuse for not complying with their duties under the Highways Act.

Prevention is better than cure. If you are aware of a problem on a road or pavement, whether a pothole, uneven paving slab, missing drain cover or anything else, you can report it to your local authority:

If you unfortunately suffer an injury due to the condition of a road or pavement, or because of ice and snow on it, it is a good idea to take photographs and/or video of the defect with something such as a tape measure or ruler to show its size, before reporting it. If then you decide to make a compensation claim for your injuries or financial losses, your solicitor can advise you whether the defect is serious enough to mean your claim is likely to be successful.

If you would like further help or advice concerning a possible compensation claim for injuries caused by the condition of a road or pavement please contact our Personal Injury team on 01733 882800 or email

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This article has been prepared for general interest and information purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. While all possible care has been taken in the preparation of this article, no responsibility for the accuracy and/or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by the firm or the authors.