Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Potholes and Essex County Council

Does Essex County Council properly inspect and repair our roads? And do they ever respond to correspondence on accidents caused by their failure to do so?

• In mid May 2011 both my husband and I had separate accidents caused by a large pothole with sharp edges in the carriageway outside our neighbours. Mine wrote off a tyre on our two month old car after hitting it. His seriously damaging his gold watch after falling on tripping over it when crossing the road. Both could have been much more serious.

• By this date Essex County Council already knew of the pothole. It had been reported to them by the Cyclists’ Touring Club in January 2011. Council inspectors had measured the pothole (with a depth they recorded then as 50mm) and risk assessed it as needing repair. The Council’s Highways Department had then advanced it to “works issued, job status committed” on 2 March. Under the terms of the Council’s Maintenance Strategy it should have been repaired within 28 days. It was eventually repaired on 14 October.

• Despite the Council having full records of this history the claim for my accident (new tyre £208.50) was rejected. The rejection relied on a photograph taken in August which grossly under-represented the pothole’s depth as 18mm. This could only have been obtained by the inspector balancing the measuring stick on the narrow lip inside the pothole where the top surface of the road had eroded, and not in the vastly larger area of the pothole which was approx, 60mm deep. It is hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to deliberately mislead. I had previously provided photographic evidence showing both the depth and the lip in my claim. This appears to have been summarily rejected without proper consideration.

• The correct depth of 60mm was eventually agreed at a joint inspection with a Council inspector on 3 October, who also admitted that the pothole should have been repaired.

• The Highways Department had previously told us that the pothole had been inspected twice after our accidents and no defect which required rectification found, despite the Council’s own existing site history showing the contrary. We have seen no records to show that these two inspections ever took place, despite Freedom of information Act requests to this end. If these had occurred why was it later necessary to carry out the botched inspection in August, when the misleading photograph was taken? And why wasn’t the site history picked up then?

• I wrote a strong and lengthy letter of complaint sent by recorded delivery to the Council on 5 October, the last sentence of which said that I wanted “an apology for the disgraceful way (as a minimum thoroughly slipshod and misleading) in which my claim had been investigated and handled”. I have had to date no reply.

• On 14 October the pothole was repaired. The contractors showed us the paperwork and told us that the Council made a practice of under-representing the depth of potholes. They were subsequently disciplined for doing this, which I can only assume has been at the Council’s instigation. That day I sent another letter of complaint by recorded delivery about what I considered to be “serious maladministration”, asking for immediate settlement, and making a number of Freedom of Information Act requests. Beyond some incomplete, evasive and inaccurate answers to the FOI requests I have had no response to this either.

• On 12 November I wrote to my Councillor, who reported that he had taken this up with the appropriate officials. I still had no reply to either of the two letters.

• In February this year I again took this up with my Councillor. We then received a letter from the Council saying that the correspondence had been “overlooked” and could we please supply copies.

• By this time my 90 year old father in law had become gravely ill, so we did not respond until 10 May. We then supplied copy letters with another letter of complaint by recorded delivery, this time to Mr Thomson, Essex County Council’s Head of Legal Service. With this letter we included a claim for repairing the damage to my husband’s watch (£360), which had taken a considerable time to repair as the damage had been so extensive. We have received no reply from Mr Thomson whatsoever, to either my letter or the claim.

• Essex County Council’s complaints procedure can be found on their website (after a difficult search) at www.essex.gov.uk/Analytics/Reports/complaints. Complaints are supposed to be acknowledged within 3 working days of receipt (with details of procedure and a contact and reference). They are then supposed to be replied to within 10 working days of receipt of the letter unless the matter is too complex, when a holding reply should be sent instead indicating when a reply can be expected. Further complaints should be dealt with by a senior officer within 20 working days. This has been completely ignored by everyone we wrote to at Essex County Council, up to and including Mr Thomson, their head of legal services. Incidentally in one of the incorrect Freedom of Information Act responses we were told that the Council had “no standard response times”.

• We then wrote by recorded delivery to Joanna Killian, the Chief Executive of Essex County Council on 18 June to complain again. We have yet (26 June) to receive even an acknowledgement.

• The Highways Department records we have managed to see have under-recorded the depth of both the two large potholes in our locality. This means that the safety of road users and pedestrians were being put at greater risk. But by doing so (whether deliberately or not) Essex County Council can postpone repairs they should have carried out in line with their own maintenance strategy, and defend any compensation claims by relying on inaccurate records. According to the Council, some 90% of highways claims are rejected.

The Pothole that Essex County Council said was only 18mm deep (3/4 of an inch)