Small businesses are paying the price for poorly maintained roads and it is time the Scottish Government addressed the problem.
That is the message from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which is calling for ministers to allocate more money for potholed roads, and the business group has good reason to be irked. The Chancellor George Osborne announced in March that a fund was being created especially for repairing roads, with allocations included in it for the devolved administrations.
But is there any indication Scotland's share is being used to tackle pocked roads? There is not. The Scottish Government responds that it is up to ministers to decide how money from Westminster is spent and the conclusion must be that repairing damaged roads is not their priority.
It may not seem like a major consideration at a time of squeezed public finances but, in fact, potholes are costing money to businesses, and the public at large. The longer bad roads go unrepaired, the more they cost. The vast majority of FSB members regard a vehicle as essential to their business. Craters in roads cause punctures, damage suspensions, can bend or tear off exhaust pipes and cause dents and scrapes to bodywork. The time and money involved in getting damaged vehicles repaired have a major impact on small businesses. Drivers also put themselves and other road users at risk by taking evasive action in order to avoid road craters.
There is a greater level of dissatisfaction among FSB members in Scotland than in any other nation of the UK about the negative impact of poor roads on their business. Meanwhile, failing to maintain roads is proving to be a false economy. Council payments to compensate drivers whose vehicles have been damaged by potholes increased from about £340,000 in 2007/08 to £1.2 million in 2011/12. Failing to maintain local roads properly only stores up problems, and higher costs, for the future.
Two months ago, The Herald launched the SME-SOS campaign in support of Scotland's powerhouse small businesses, highlighting the simple-to-remedy obstacles they face. Vehicle damage caused by neglect of roads is one of those obstacles. It is a mistake by the Scottish Government to pass up the opportunity to allocate more funding for this problem. Local authorities may have made efficiency savings in order to try to keep up road spending as best they can, but there is only so far such a policy can be pushed. The Scottish Government has for many years put pressure on local government to freeze council tax, and that has put enormous stress on budgets; ministers must therefore accept their share of responsibility for the funding constraints councils now face. Potholes are a major source of complaints to councils. A dedicated allocation of funds to tackle potholes would no doubt be much welcomed by them.
A well-maintained system of local roads is essential to Scotland's economic health and if it is not a Scottish Government funding priority, it should be.