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Point of no return: Caithness roads could be reduced to 'dirt tracks'

By Alan Hendry

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A Highland Council roads team carrying out resurfacing work in Wick in June last year. Picture: Alan Hendry
A Highland Council roads team carrying out resurfacing work in Wick in June last year. Picture: Alan Hendry

Caithness is approaching a "point of no return" over potholes, it has been claimed.

A Highland Council roads worker warned that routes around Wick and Thurso will be reduced to little more than "dirt tracks" in years to come unless there is major investment.

The employee, who asked not to be named, also said that morale among the local workforce is "at an all-time low".

He described the county's roads as among the worst in Scotland and pointed out that some long-suffering members of the public have resorted to filling in potholes for themselves.

“We never had this problem before," the worker said. "When I started with the council, two days a year we were sent out to potholes and it took us a whole day to find one."

He said lack of surface-dressing – a process that seals the road and helps to prevent deterioration – has been a key factor.

“Once they tar a road, they never surface-dress it – or they do when it's too late," he said.

"It would actually be better if they gave it over to a private contractor.

“People are filling in their own potholes. A lot of people are going in with cement.

“With the stuff we've got, we'll patch a pothole and three days later we're back patching it again. We never go and fix it properly, it's just a half-measure.

“It's coming to a point of no return. There is going to have to be some amount of investment in the roads in Caithness.

“It has gone from so good to so bad. I've had my own car in the garage twice [for pothole-related repairs].

“We're the worst in the whole of Scotland, I would say. It is the Highland Clearances by stealth."

He also pointed to a decline in numbers in the Caithness roads team over the years.

“You'd be lucky if there are 17 now," he said. "When I started there were not far off 50 to 64."

The worker said he had been approached when off duty by members of the public asking, “When are you going to fix the f***ing potholes?”

He went on: “Morale is just at an all-time low.

“When I started we used to tar from April to the start of June, then they used to do their surface-dressing from June to August, and then they used to tar again from September... the whole year we were doing something. But now it's just a few weeks here and a few weeks there.

“It's going down and down and down. The council should just go and say 'we've no more money'."

On gritting, he said: “There's meant to be 11 gritters for Caithness but they've only had the full complement two days in the whole winter."

The worker was not surprised when Highland Council drew a blank in its initial attempt to recruit a "rapid road repair team", having to re-advertise all 10 vacancies.

He said: “Nobody is going to leave a job for a six-month contract with the council. It would never happen, it would never work.

“They would have to pay really good money and the council just doesn't do that any more.”

He went on: “Something needs to be done. I'd hate to see the roads in 10 years if it keeps going like this – it'll just be dirt tracks all around Wick and Thurso, that's all it'll be.

"I saw someone shouting in the Inverness Courier about a few potholes. They should come up here."

Over the past three years, a campaign for more investment in the county's roads has been led by Iain Gregory, co-founder Caithness Roads Recovery.

The worker said: "They hate him on the council, but I quite like him. If it wasn't for the likes of him, it wouldn't be highlighted so much.

"Good on him. If he stood for election I'd actually vote for him. He does a lot of good."

Many rural areas have seen crumbling road surfaces in recent years. Picture: Mel Roger
Many rural areas have seen crumbling road surfaces in recent years. Picture: Mel Roger

A Highland Council roads technician, who also asked not to be named, said he did not believe the deterioration in recent years had been caused by any drop in the quality of materials being used.

"If anything, technically it should be better than it was years ago because they've got that much expertise these days," he said.

"Generally the roads crack up so much because there's a lot more loading than they used to have on these roads. There's a lot heavier traffic and the lorries are a lot heavier, and the councils don't have the money to get on to these things as quickly as they'd like – and it all sort of snowballs.

"I don't think the actual quality of materials is any different. If anything, it should be better. It's just that we don't get the opportunity to repair these things as quickly as we should, and that's all down to finance.

"The sooner you can seal the road with a good surface dressing, the better. But once again, we can only afford to do so much of that every year.

"You'll find every now and again that when things get really bad, and people start complaining really hard, then all of a sudden central government will find a few million to chuck at it and we'll go around repairing as much as we can with the extra money.

"It's a constant struggle. I don't know what you can do about it – just keep plugging away. It's down to money in the end."

In October, Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner confirmed that the local authority was on target for a capital spend of almost £3 million on Caithness roads within the current financial year.

Last month the Caithness committee recently agreed a prioritised programme of works for Caithness roads that is expected to cost almost £600,000, to be funded out of the capital budget allocation for 2024/25.

Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Burgh of Wick Community Council last week, Councillor Bremner, who represents the Wick and East Caithness ward, pointed out: "I drive the roads too. So does every council worker that has to go to their work every day. They all have families. They all read the social media... It's personal to all of us."

He described the county's crumbling roads as a legacy of some 15 years of underinvestment.

Road repairs in the Lyth area last August.
Road repairs in the Lyth area last August.

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