Sam Leith Sam Leith

The parable of Blackpool’s potholes

Blackpool is one of the UK's most deprived places (Getty)

I read the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackpool, Lancashire. Well, in fact, not quite as many as 4,000. The number of holes in the Lancashire town that the Beatles didn’t sing about was a very precise 2,628 – or, translated into another scale, just over half an Albert Hall’s worth. That’s how many potholes Blackpool Council has filled in over the last year alone.  

In a world where every other bulletin is of swirling climate catastrophe, economic precarity, hot wars, riots, migrant drownings, gusts of online hate and all the jollity of the day-to-day news cycle, this local council has been getting on, patiently and methodically, with the work of filling little holes in the road.

The Council had to borrow money – some £30 million – to start repairing the roads

This is a good news story. And it’s also, it seems to me, a little parable. Small things give onto big ones. You’ll remember the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing credited with turning the dingy and crime-ridden New York of the 1970s and 1980s into the shiny and buzzing one of today. The idea, taken up with enthusiasm by the then mayor Rudy Giuliani, was that if you fixed the broken windows and aggressively policed minor crimes the vibe would change. You created an atmosphere of orderliness and good behaviour: graffiti didn’t appear; muggers didn’t imagine that they would lift wallets with impunity; the other windows remained unbroken.

Here is a close parallel, but with a slightly different slant. The lesson with Mended Pothole Theory, as I choose to call it, is less to do with the contagiousness of civic order (though no doubt it contributes to local pride in the area) than to do with the principle that a stitch in time saves nine. A few years back, Blackpool Council was having to pay out £1.5 million every single year in compensation to people injured by accidents involving potholes. Last year, the figure was a pleasingly exact £719. 

Deciding to invest in prevention rather than cure was a move of great sagacity and foresight, It will have taken, too, some cojones. Blackpool is not exactly awash with spare money. This faded seaside town is one of the most deprived areas in the country. In Madeleine Bunting’s melancholy recent book The Seaside: England’s Love Affair, the author reports that Blackpool’s life expectancy is the lowest in the UK. More than a quarter of Blackpool’s under-sixteens live in households on incomes less than two thirds of the national average. The 2021 Chief Medical Officer’s report said of the town’s housing situation that ‘inner Blackpool now houses the single most vulnerable population in the country in the most inappropriate accommodation’.  

The Council had to borrow money – some £30 million – to start repairing the roads. No doubt there will have been those, and still will be, who wondered why potholes were placed ahead of, say, improvements to housing stock or school meals or any of the other vital services for the town. And the answer – vide that astounding drop in compensation claims from £1.5 million to £719 – is that you fix the leak in the bucket before you start bailing. 

Now other town councils up and down the country, it’s reported, are rushing to follow Blackpool’s lead. Wouldn’t it be nice if the principle were extended into all those other areas of policy, not local but national and international, where an ounce of prevention might save us a ton of cure?

To take one example: the care system. Outcomes for looked-after children are societally ruinous. These children are by some way more likely than the general population to grow up physically or mentally ill, criminally recidivist, addicted, unemployed. This matters not just for their own happiness, but for the public purse. Criminals and addicts are very expensive to look after. Children, however troubled, are much less so.

Other councils up and down the country are rushing to follow Blackpool’s lead

There’s no question that these children enter the system with problems, but many of them leave it in worse shape than they came in. The studies which have been done on this (my wife made a documentary on the subject not long ago) show that a pound invested now saves multiples of that down the line. The MacAlister report said that £2.6 billion was needed over five years to fix the system – and the government responded with proposals to invest just £200 million over two years.

Everywhere you look, there are instances. Chiselling money from education budgets now puts a great dent in the economy of the future. Get in a situation where GP appointments are impossible to obtain, or patients have to wait months for a routine operation, only compounds the costs in lost work, medical complications and expensive visits to A&E.

Another example, a global one. Climate: is it not worth taking a hit to the economy now in order not to take a wallop down the line? And if we’re worrying about the effects of immigration on the public purse, can fighting through the courts to send a few dozen people to Rwanda – at £150,000 per head not including the legal fees involved – really be the most cost-effective way to bring those costs under control? Is it possible, in other words, that cutting foreign aid is a false economy?

Or if you don’t believe there’s anything the matter with the climate, and foreign aid sounds like too wishy-washy-liberal a point, you could make an analogous one about military spending. The savings we made from letting our defence budget wither, as wise analysts point out, are likely to come back and bite us as costs in the long run, and not just in pounds and pence.

‘Longtermism’ has been given a bad name by the ketamine-addled tech-bros who have visions of colonising Mars or uploading our consciousnesses into the cloud, so let’s settle for Mediumtermism: the idea that spending a bit of money today we can avoid spending a lot of money two or three decades into the future. It’s an idea so simple, and so screamingly obvious, that only the perverse incentives of a four-year-election cycle could cause anyone to take a different view.

Yet that’s where we are. The potholes are everywhere underfoot, yet the people in charge have their eyes raised to the bright lights of the ferris wheels. It’s a recipe for a nasty tumble.