Winter gritting policy 'falls short' says MLA

Helping to deliver grit were East Antrim MLA John Stewart with party colleague, Mid and East Antrim councillor Lindsay Millar.  INCT 03-741-CON
Helping to deliver grit were East Antrim MLA John Stewart with party colleague, Mid and East Antrim councillor Lindsay Millar. INCT 03-741-CON

The Department for Infrastructure has come under fire for an alleged "lack of flexibility" in its gritting policy this winter.

Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart claimed DfI's response to the recent cold snap "fell short" of public expectations.

The UUP representative has criticised DfI's gritting policy.

The UUP representative has criticised DfI's gritting policy.

The East Antrim representative and colleagues visited a number of areas in the constituency on Sunday and Monday night to deliver grit to residents.

Included on the route were residential areas in Carrickfergus such as Sunnylands and Victoria, along with Greenisland, Whitehead and parts of Larne.

“In early December, during the last spell of snow and ice, scores of East Antrim residents contacted me to either request that existing grit boxes were re-filled, new grit boxes were provided, or to question why so many heavily-trafficked roads were not on the primary gritting routes," he said.

“Despite numerous requests, the Department have so far not responded positively to any suggestions for extra grit boxes or to expand the primary routes for the gritting lorries. However, the expectation of the public is that if they are not on a main gritting route, more boxes should be provided and kept filled for residents.

“Out of pure frustration more than anything else, this past weekend with a small team I collected and delivered grit to constituents who requested extra help in preparation for this week’s forecasted severe weather. However, this is only scratching at the surface of the problem."

The UUP man went on to criticise what he believed to be "restrictive" criteria for securing a grit box.

“The Department’s policy for gritting the roads network is based on objective criteria of vehicle numbers and the policy has been reviewed in the past and slightly widened to allow extra weighting for hilly terrain and school bus routes," he said.

“In residential areas which do not meet the traffic count to warrant being gritted - which is basically all non main roads - there is the option of spreading salt or grit from boxes provided by DfI Roads Service. Self-help gritting in residential areas is promoted as something which compensates for lack of gritting by DfI spreaders. However, the criteria for getting a box is both complicated and highly restrictive."

In the absence of a local Minister to review the policy, Mr Stewart indicated he had written to DfI's Permanent Secretary in December. "He has indicated that there were no plans to review or change the winter service; without political direction from Stormont, and with continuing budget uncertainty, there is no compulsion for him to do so," he added.

“I am meeting the Northern Divisional Manager of the DfI Roads this week to take the issue further at a local level. What is clear to me is that the current policy falls way short of meeting the expectations of the general public.

"I would encourage those who can to collect and distribute grit to their residential areas from the Roads Depot off the A8 at Kilwaughter in preparation for the ice and snow which is forecast.”

Responding, a spokesperson for DfI said its winter service programme ensures over a quarter of the total road network is treated. "At times of ice and snow DfI deploys around 300 staff and a fleet of 130 gritters - working round the clock when needed - to salt the 107 routes that make up the 7,000km of the network on the salting schedule," the spokesperson added.

"In general, the main through routes that carry more than 1,500 vehicles per day and, in exceptional circumstances, roads carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 vehicles per day are salted. The application of this policy ensures that 28 percent of the total road network, which carries around 80 percent of traffic is salted. So far this year, 43,000 tonnes of salt has been spread on our roads and a further 77,000 tonnes is stockpiled and ready for use.

"On roads not included on the schedule, salt bins and grit piles may be provided by the Department for use by the public on a self-help basis.

"When considering requests for the provision of a salt bin, officials carry out an evaluation using a criteria-based system which takes into account various factors including topography, traffic volumes, road gradient and geometry, alternative routes, and also considers factors such as residential usage and community facilities including schools and care homes for the elderly.

"The Department believes that the criteria used provides a fair and equitable balance, serving those most in need. The outworking of this policy already commits significant resources to maintain approximately 5,000 salt bins and 50,000 grit piles currently provided on public roads."

Meanwhile, financial pressures have also had an impact. "The Department, along with all the other Northern Ireland departments, has had to make significant cuts to its budget in recent years," the spokesperson said.

"In these circumstances, the Department has no plans to review the current winter service policy or the criteria officials use for the provision of salt bins or grit piles.

"With snow and ice again forecast over the next few days, the Department is advising the public to consider their travel arrangements and be aware of weather updates. Motorists should exercise caution and drive with due care and attention in the more challenging conditions that snow and ice can bring.”

Meanwhile, self-help grit piles are available at the following locations in East Antrim:

- Sullatober Recycling Centre, Carrickfergus;

- Glenlough Community Centre, Carnlough;

- Glenview Church car park;

- Cloney car park, Glenarm (council-owned);

- Kilwaughter Roads Depot.