By Nick Pelling

A recent public Zoom meeting, promoted by several local community groups including Next Door Bohemia and Tidy Up St Leonards, and chaired by Hastings Borough councillor Andrew Batsford, has discussed the perennial issue of potholes in the roads of Hastings. The predictable outcome: a stream of what might be called polite rage. 

East Sussex County Council (ESCC), which has responsibility for maintaining the roads, was described by members of the public as “not caring” about Hastings. The town was dubbed a “poor relation”, conveniently forgotten at “the end of the line”. Fellow councillor Margi O’Callaghan perhaps captured the popular perceptions and frustrations when she argued that Hastings was ‘neglected’ in favour of “richer areas”. 

St Warrior Square, St Leonards
PICTURE: Dave Young

The consensus at the meeting was that the town should try to ‘take back control’ of the responsibility for maintaining the roads away from ESCC. It was felt that the county council would probably be reluctant to give up control, and the idea of a kind of campaign for ‘Hexit’ will certainly be challenging to bring into being, but the borough council did take back responsibility for street cleaning two years ago, and that is seen as a success by many. 

It is certainly true that many of the roads in Hastings are literally cracking up. Downs Road and Elphinstone Road were cited, but Chapel Park Road in Gensing ward would get my vote for worst road in Hastings. (Readers may wish to send in their own nominations.) Of course, it may be that the real problem is that Hastings people just do not complain enough. Roads in Eastbourne and Wadhurst attract an apparently higher complaint rate. Evidently, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, even if it’s buckled. 

Wheelchairs

But potholes are more than a nuisance: they can be lethal. And not just for the obvious candidates, cyclists and motorcyclists. One speaker, Claire Carr made a telling point: people in wheelchairs can often only cross a road where the kerb is dropped, but if that happens to lead directly to a pothole then the situation becomes deeply upsetting. 

Pevensey Road, St Leonards
PICTURE: Dave Young

The meeting also revealed a feeling that ESCC tends to be very hard to get compensation out of in the event of damage to a vehicle. The county council’s own figures showed that out of 528 claims made against it in 2020 only 64 (12%) were successful. The 1980 Highways Act provides that so long as a highways authority has taken “all reasonable care” to maintain the roads, it is not legally liable for flying cyclists. 

Following the meeting I spoke to Karen Bowles, ESCC’s press officer. She denied any bias against Hastings, and focussed on the complexity of road maintenance. Last year the contractors, Costain, filled in 27,000 potholes for ESCC, of which 2,800 were in the Hastings area – by percentage of population, just under its due proportion. She pointed out that the current county budget allocation is ‘not done on a town-by-town basis’ so it cannot be the case that Hastings is deliberately underfunded. Ms Bowles also added that the contractors have to work with very specific constraints that mean they must only carry out what has been allocated. They are not allowed to be freelance fillers, picking off potholes as they see fit. The popular perception that workers ignore adjacent potholes perhaps overlooks the necessary discipline of the ‘job-sheet.’

Slashed Budgets

But the truth is that road maintenance budgets have been slashed everywhere over the decade of ‘austerity’. The Institute of Fiscal Studies calculates that there has been a 26% general fall in local budgets since 2010. Roads are a physical manifestation. 

And many of the linking roads of Hastings are disintegrating. John Funnell, of Tidy Up St Leonards, describes certain routes as “like an assault course”. Sadly, the broken road surfaces create a false impression that no-one cares for the town which may help to explain why so many people feel it is alright to chuck litter. This is a shame, given that there are several inspiring volunteer groups that are trying so hard to improve the town. Annalize Senol, of the newly formed Clean Up Hastings, is deeply frustrated by the “atrocious” nature of the pothole problem. These groups suggest that the solution may lie in localism. But, however one looks at it, there is clearly a need for a literal ‘levelling up’ of Hastings highways. 


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