COUNCILLORS have gone to war with Stormont‘s roads boss, accusing her of trying to ‘trade statistics’ when she should be tackling crumbling local streets.

Recently Ards and North Down was revealed to be the pothole capital of Northern Ireland, with over 1,700 road defects reported to the authorities last year alone.

That’s more than any other district in the province.

At the same time, the borough was consistently assigned the least amount of money for repair work, due to the funding formula employed by Stormont’s Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Ards and North Down Council wrote to the top civil servant currently running the DfI, complaining about the situation – but councillors were shocked to get a reply insisting that this area is actually doing quite well.

DfI Permanent Secretary, Julie Harrison, disputed the borough’s position as the pothole capital by supplying alternative statistics that use a different definition of what qualifies as a pothole.

She argued that road damage can be ‘wrongly categorised as a pothole’ by the public, and some cases should instead be recorded as ‘another type of surface defect, such as cracking [or] depression’.

She also maintained that the previously published statistics ‘are not necessarily an accurate or reliable source of information’, as one pothole may be reported multiple times by different members of the public.

When only looking at those defects officially designated by the DfI as a pothole in need of repair, she added, Ards and North Down is in fact doing better than most places.

Statistics she supplied showed that over a five-year period from 2018, Ards and North Down averaged three-and-a-half potholes in need of repair for every kilometre of road.

That’s the third best result in Northern Ireland, and below the provincewide average of four potholes per kilometre.

The permanent secretary maintained that the official five-year average ‘provides a much more accurate picture’ of the situation than the number of potholes reported by the public last year.

She added: “The low numbers of repairs within the Ards and North Down area is an indicator that fewer repairs were required, and would indicate the condition of roads was more favourable in comparison to the majority of other council areas.”

Her reply was presented to the council’s Corporate Committee on Tuesday night, with several councillors frustrated that she didn’t seem to have taken their points on board.

Said UUP alderman Phillip Smith: “This could be summed up as ‘when is a pothole not a pothole’ – it’s disappointing, to say the least.

“Basically, they’ve said, firstly we argue with what your definition of a pothole is; secondly, we’ll trade your stats for our stats that show you’re not doing as badly as you think; thirdly, even if we did agree, we’ve no money.

“That’s fine, we can trade statistics; the public reports have us top of the league table, but this about repairs that have been actioned. Maybe the issue is they’re not actioning [enough].

“The bottom line seems to be that nothing’s going to change and we’re just going to have to get used to it.”

DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen queried whether engineers in each district use the same criteria and analysis when deciding what counts as a pothole in need of repair.

“What is assessed as actionable in Ards and North Down versus in other council areas?” he asked. “Are we comparing apples and pears, or apples and apples?”

Mr McIlveen also pointed out that the council’s issues with the road repair funding formula hadn’t been addressed.

That formula assigns money for repairs and maintenance according to the length of roads in each area.

The more miles the road network covers in a single district, the more repair money that district gets. Ards and North Down, geographically small but densely populated and with some of the province’s busiest commuter routes, consistently gets the least amount of cash.

Said Mr McIlveen: “An area such as this, with such heavy traffic, would expect greater damage to our surfacing.

“The division of funding really should be on need, rather than length of roads.”