Local councillors have vehemently rebuffed TransportNI’s suggestion that Council should “take responsibility” for grass cutting across the borough.
The comments, made at a meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on August 3, were in response to a letter from TransportNI saying that it intends to only provide a “skeletal routine maintenance service”.
In a letter to the council’s Chief Executive Anne Donaghy, TransportNI stresses that is facing a “£60 million resource budget pressure” which has affected its ability to provide routine maintenance services including grass cutting.
The letter states that there has been no budget available to carry out these services since April 1 2015, therefore TransportNI has not been able to employ external providers to undertake these activities since March 31 2015.
The letter points Mid and East Antrim Council towards the example of other local authorities such as Antrim and Newtownabbey, which it says are “taking responsibility for cutting grass across their borough”.
In these cases, Transport NI either allows councils to use their contractors or TransportNI’s staff cut the grass and are reimbursed by council.
However, Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council Anne Donaghy raised concerns over the “price tag” which the rate payer, via council, would face for assuming responsibility for grass cutting.
“When you read that letter you could interpret that council has taken over all grass cutting from the DRD,” she stated.
“We need to understand the implications. The current level of grass growth is unacceptable and dangerous. I will meet with Deirdre Mackle of Transport NI and we will be coming back with an indication of what other councils are doing, what it will cost, our responsibility and how we will move forward. Miss Mackle is moving towards a collaborative approach but we don’t know what that is.”
SDLP Councillor Declan O’Loan said he believed that council “should not be getting any more involved” in grass cutting that it already is.
“The single most important issue is that we keep junctions safe,” he stated.
“How that could be deemed not to be the responsibility of TransportNI I can’t conceive.
“I don’t think that council should show any willingness on that.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Maguire cautioned against accepting Transport NI’s suggestions.
“Council should steer clear of grass cutting,” he said.
“It would be setting a precedent. Next month we could get a ‘Dear John’ from Simon Hamilton, the next month from John O’Dowd.”
Cllr Maguire suggested that if council had money to spare it should look to community associations for assistance.
DUP Councillor Beth Adger commented: “I’m in favour of grass cutting but it’s unfair that we could have to pay. I would ask if the Chief Executive could look into the idea of farmers cutting grass and using it for their animals.”
Deputy Mayor Councillor Timothy Gaston said that while he “wouldn’t be keen on taking responsibility” for grass cutting, if council was exploring options it could look to Ahoghill where the local community cut all the grass within the 30mph speed limits, even that which is the responsbility of the DRD.
DUP Councillor Sam Hanna said his biggest worry was stop signs, which he said were obscured by thick foliage.
DUP Councillor Beth Clyde added that there was still a problem with potholes, and that the compensation paid out for them would be enough to fund grass cutting.
Chief Executive Anne Donaghy revealed that in the past Larne Borough Council had cut grass for Transport NI in return for payment under an agreement. However, this had stopped after TransportNI had stopped paying.
UUP Councillor Andy P Wilson said that even though grass cutting was not in the council’s remit, the general public had an expectation of council and that this perception had to be dealt with.
DUP Councillor John Carson said that the grass growth was a safety concern which would “will eventually lead to a major accident.”
“The stop and give way signs and high grass and weeds would cause concerns about the emergency services,” he continued.
“Not being able to see the name of a particular road is terrible and will have an impact on safety.”
Responding to safety concerns regarding overgrown grass at the roadside, TransportNI states in its letter that it “will not be allowing road safety related maintenance to be stopped altogether, and our internal workforce will provide a skeletal routine maintenance service.”
Grass areas in Mid and East Antrim will be cut once between April and October 2015, with sightlines at bends and junctions being cut more frequently as required.
DUP Councillor Gordon Lyons asked why, if DRD staff were available, council had to take on responsibility for grass cutting.
In response to Cllr Maguire’s comments, he stated that it was “extremely hypocritical for any member of Sinn Fein to complain about money not being available when they have the responsibility for £2million going out of our budget every single week.”
Cllr Maguire hit back, stating “With the greatest respect to Councillor Lyons, in terms of hypocrisy he has the market cornered.”
In response to Cllr Carson putting his fingers in his ears during his comments, Cllr Maguire said there was a “code of conduct for some and not for others.”
“People who say we are subsidized, that Britain subsidises the North, the Barnett Formula is not fit for purpose, the British Government has been asked to say what they take out of our economy and what they take from the North and they have never replied, in therms of hypocrisy it is unbelievable,” stated Cllr Maguire.
A meeting between the Northern Divisional Manager for Transport NI Deirdre Mackle and Chief Executive Anne Donaghy to discuss the issue took place on August 4.