This was a chapter in my 2016 collection of twenty-six essays, The Best I Can Do. It is available in paperback from Amazon and Blackwell.co.uk
Macadamised Trevor Pateman
It’s always rained a lot in the United Kingdom and now it rains even more. When I am sidestepping pavement puddles and driving along main roads sheeted with water, I keep thinking about the fact that civilisations in decline forget how to use - or cannot be bothered to use - the technologies which once made them great. Think of what happened to Britain when the Romans left and it was immediately as if central heating technology had never been invented: according to Winston Churchill in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Britain knew neither central heating nor hot baths for 1500 years, the people shivering and smelly.
In school, and quite young, we did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. We learnt about advances in civil engineering which introduced an era of road improvement and we knew the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Macadam (1756 - 1836), both Scotsmen. The latter gave us the word “Tarmac”, shortened from “Tarmacadam”. I can still remember the diagrams, though I don't have the exercise books any more. The basic idea was something like this: you built up the road with small stones and at the same time you cambered the road, so that water ran to the sides where it could be drained into ditches. Then you applied tar to the surface. Unlike the old mud roads, the Macadamised road would remain passable in the wettest weather. In the context of growth of industry and trade, and until railways became widespread, it was an innovation of direct benefit to business which helps explain why Macadam’s ideas were taken up. In towns, those ideas had the same advantage: water from cambered streets would flow towards gutters and from there would be channeled into drains. As a final flourish of civic pride and common sense, pavements could be gently sloped so that they too drained into the gutters.
All this we have forgotten.
In towns, our roads and pavements are dug up endlessly by utility firms and councils. They employ the same firms: Bodger and Sons, Bodger and Daughters, Bodger and Bodger. None of them have heard of road cambering or water runoff. Or if they have, they don't want to know. They want the money. Not so many years ago, cumbersome council vehicles dropped great nozzles into street drains to suck out leaves and other debris and thus ensure that the drains were fit for purpose. Now we have privatised drains and no cumbersome vehicles. Drains are blocked: when it rains, the water may run towards the drains but there it simply overflows and spreads out into those great ponds of water which buses drive through.
On the main roads and motorways, large private companies extract from the Exchequer millions for maintenance. But Bodger and Bodger Plc has never heard of cambering or storm water drains or ditches and, if it has, it doesn't want to know. It wants to lay tarmac at however-many-million pounds a mile and move on.
This is a civilisation in decline. Even the business imperative has weakened and road haulage companies rely on the sturdiness of their foreign-made vehicles rather than the sturdiness of British roads to get goods quickly from A to B.
There is another way of looking at this kind of failure to do things
which could be done and would benefit everyone. It is structural rather than
historical. It starts from paradoxical
observations such as this: Everyone uses pavements but, nonetheless, pavements
are badly maintained. How come?
A small majority of citizens vote in British general elections but only a minority in local elections. You can win in local elections by getting just a few of your on-hand special interest groups to turn out for you. Pavement users are just not a special interest group and promising better pavements just isn't going to motivate a non-voter to go and vote. Nor is it going to switch a Tory or a Labour vote. It’s nothing to get passionate about unlike whatever is the local passion evoker – the most common one, the threat of more house building. Local politicians support new house building at their peril.
Because there are no votes in pavements, there is no money for pavements. They have no advocates. They aren’t slices of a cake you can fight over. That's the problem. Well-maintained pavements aren't the stuff of advocacy politics. No one group is going to get better off from better pavements. Everyone is. And no one is an advocate for everyone: read a batch of Opinion pieces in The Guardian – there are many – and they are about who should be getting a bigger slice of this or that cake, a bigger place in the sun. No one is going to pay you or encourage you to represent a common interest or even write opinion pieces about it. If one day better pavements arrive, everyone benefits regardless. No one has to contribute to get them.
Politicians - the professional political class with their own interests in shares of the cake - know that the route to power lies through assembling the voting support of enough sectional groups. In Britain, that mostly means people over 60 and what are always called by the one-word name, ordinaryhardworkingfamilies - the sort of people temporarily encumbered with children but looking forward to the day when they too will be over 60.
Pavements are not an issue but child care costs and pension benefits are. They are slices of the cake. Politicians make promises about these things, often engaging in competitive bidding. That could end up being costly, so sometimes they try a different strategy, appealing to sectional groups who won't be a burden on the Budget. It doesn't cost much to appeal to those wanting fox hunting bans (Labour) or gay marriages (Conservative). There's just the risk that you lose more votes than you gain.
But if you promise Better Pavements you are trying to appeal to everyone and Everyone is not a winning coalition. Pavements aren't adversarial enough, just painful when you trip over. Remember Winston Churchill: 1500 years without hot baths and central heating. Don’t expect pavement improvements any time soon.
Thomas Codrington, The Maintenance of Macadamised Roads. Second edition. E & F N Spon, London 1892.
Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press 1965