If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The state of our roads is very much a concern of everybody.

Currently motorists are trying to dodge – dangerously, I might add – millions of car-damaging potholes which severe winter temperatures have inflicted on us. Yet the government tells us that in these straightened time there is not the money to tackle them as we might wish.

It is possible that we might buy this line were it not for the fact that the highways department still seems to have ample funds to continue with changes to our existing road infrastructure.

For many years now we have had to put up with an endless succession of tinkering changes, all under the guise of protecting us from harming ourselves. I’m largely talking here of traffic lights where none had been previously thought necessary – even on roundabouts, the sole purpose of which is to keep the traffic flowing.

A few, I must concede, have been beneficial – especially improvements to known accident black spots. But then there is the senseless turning of so many streets into one way; the chicanes; the road bumps; the bus and cycle lanes (where grossly underused pavements could have been developed to accommodate the bicycles); traffic islands; and so many more instances of so-called ‘improvements’ which are actually little more than attempts of social engineering.

The fact is that for some long time now we have enjoyed one of the best road systems in the world, used by some of the safest drivers in Europe. So why, I keep asking myself, are we constantly wondering – and worrying – what ‘safety measure’ the road planners will think up next?

My own guiding principal is that old axiom ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

When the present government began the desperate task of finding savings why did it not turn its attention to the huge expenditure that these so-called improvements represented? We are talking billions here!

At a stroke it could have announced that we can perfectly well manage with what we’ve got and spend nothing more for the duration of one whole parliament. The savings would have been truly enormous, and can we seriously argue that we would have been any worse off?

During this time the traffic would have enjoyed the rare luxury of continuing to flow freely, spared the maddening delays which such ‘improvements’ entail.

I well remember a recent example of wasted effort and money in my own neck of the woods, where Plympton motorists join the A38 at the top of Chaddlewood. It was a spot where you had to keep your wits about you – but knowing the consequences of not doing so, people did. After all, you had a clear view of everything that was going on.

But Highways Harry knew better; he was not content with allowing motorists to trust the evidence of our own eyes, nor our own desire to stay alive. So at vast expense and months of roadworks and delays, he reconfigured things and, yes, you guessed it – traffic lights were part of his solution.

The upshot of it all is that, in my view, we are worse off than we were before and most certainly a lot poorer. I cannot think there could have been much change out of a million pounds for such a project.

The Department for Transport also pays little regard to the enjoyment of driving. When the Victorians developed their railways system, it was very much part of their game plan to drive the line through as scenic and pleasurable a route as it was possible to do – as long as doing so would not add too many more miles to the journey. You see, they wanted you to enjoy the trip.

As a result, we have some truly magnificent rail journeys all over our lovely island. They compare with some of the best in the world. One of them is right on our doorstep: the journey through Dawlish to Exeter. They could have saved a bob or two by a different, shorter, route, but they wanted you to enjoy your journey.

How differently the authorities view things today. They know how much the car means to us, but they are not the least bit interested in making the experience as pleasurable as they can.

Again, right on our doorstep: it used to be enjoyable to drive the Madeira Road route from the Barbican round the Hoe foreshore, with its world-beatingly spectacular views. Perversely, it would seem, they give every appearance of wanting to spoil it for us; they’ve peppered the road with poorly designed humps which deny you admiring the view at all.

Their answer, no doubt, is boy racers (I was never aware of it being an accident black spot). Well, police it properly, as you used to. Don’t rob us of one of our delights.

This highlights an area in which David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society could come into play.

The roads belong to us; it is we who have to live with the consequences of them getting things wrong, and we who have to foot the bills.

Seldom will the authorities admit a mistake, even when it is staring them in the face, much less make restitution. When it’s done, it’s done. “Tough,” is their attitude, “you must learn to live with it.”

It should not be enough for jobsworth Highways Harry, sitting in his office, to dream up ever new and bizarre schemes and then foist them on us. There should be much more democratisation where these matters are concerned, and in my view local people should have the final say.

Also, before our man in his office comes forward with his next bright idea – such as chicanes, road bumps and speed cameras – he should be obliged to prove his case and have done his homework. By this I mean that he should be able to convince us that there is a problem (i.e., by way of deaths, accidents or undue delays).

Every single decision which involves public money, dislocation or change should be evidence-based. In other words: bring us the proof.

If the government had put roads on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis at the start of its term of office, not only would there have been more than enough in the kitty to take care of every one of these scandalous potholes which so blight our driving today and damage our cars, but we might have been able to avoid some of the more contentious cuts altogether.

But before anyone takes me to task about the massive rise in unemployment we would see in our already hard-hit construction industry that a cessation of all road ‘improvements’ would entail, my answer is to get your priorities right.

Start building those much needed houses – social and otherwise – that our burgeoning population and young people need. Spain may have too many, but we most certainly have too few.

It must be truly depressing to see no prospect of ever being able to afford your own home. How can we bang on about family values when you cannot even find a pad to put down roots and raise your children?

You have to feel sorry for our young people. Not only can they not get their own roof over their head, but they cannot get a job either – even in many cases where they’ve toiled to get a degree. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ve hit them with a double financial whammy: debt to pay off for what may well turn out to be a useless degree (if and when they do get a job), never mind a mountain of public debt to pay off as well.

All of this will make it next to impossible for them to pay into a pension plan for their old age. What a great legacy to leave our children. We should hang our heads in shame.

About tomhmackenzie

Born Derek James Craig in 1939, I was stripped of my identity and renamed Thomas Humphreys in the Foundling Hospital's last intake of illegitimate children. After leaving the hospital at 15, I managed to find work in a Fleet Street press agency before being called up for National Service with the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars who were, at that time, engaged with the IRA in Northern Ireland. Following my spell in the Army, I sought out and located my biological parents at age 20. I then became Thomas Humphrey Mackenzie and formed the closest of relationships with my parents for the rest of their lives. All this formed the basis of my book, The Last Foundling (Pan Macmillan), which went on to become an international best seller.

Posted on June 12, 2012, in government, UK and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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