Northern Ireland councils spent £500,000 clearing snow-packed footpaths last winter, it has been revealed.
And local ratepayers had to meet the bulk of the bill, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) said.
Stormont only provided a total of £30,000 split between all 26 authorities — an average of £1,154 apiece, according to NILGA.
This year the Department for Regional Development (DRD) has devised new arrangements to prevent a repeat of the barrage of complaints during last December and January. But NILGA insists the interim scheme is for this winter only, and is to be reviewed.
Many streets and communities were left isolated last winter as both DRD and local councils appeared to dodge responsibility for clearing snow from pavements.
The department, then run by Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy, insisted it could not cope without councils’ help — but local government chiefs sought indemnity to protect ratepayers from injury claims.
A NILGA letter sent to councils for guidance on dealing with any repeat of the last debacle said: “Some preliminary research has demonstrated that councils collectively spent in excess of £500,000 to clear snow and grit from footpaths during last winter.”
But now new minister, Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy, has announced: “Roads Service will work with councils during prolonged periods of snow and ice to clear footpaths in busy town centres and pedestrian areas.
“The department has agreed to make salt and grit available free of charge to councils availing of the partnership agreement. Roads Service would also supply manpower to councils where resources permit and provide an indemnity to councils or groups working on their behalf.”
But NILGA made clear: “Councils performing this voluntary work, subject to an acceptable local agreement, do so in the absence of clear legislation which would support a risk-free culture of independent self-help.
“Councils have no statutory duty to salt or grit footways and are not resourced for this work. (Nonetheless) all councils are keen to assist local communities (and) therefore this winter may be undertaking this work on a voluntary basis ... in large part at their own cost and risk.”
NILGA yesterday formally welcomed the decision of the Stormont Executive to reshape the 26 authorities into 11 new councils — after more than two years of stalemate.
“Essentially, the relationships and knowledge that were built up in the recent past can be revitalised,” NILGA president, councillor Evelyne Robinson, said.
The NI Roads Order 1993 imposes a statutory duty on the Department for Regional Development to maintain roads — but not to salt them. Instead the order includes a “discretionary power” to take all reasonable and practicable steps to prevent snow and ice interfering “with the safe passage of persons or vehicles”. Local councils have no statutory duties but have agreed this year to try to meet any challenges on a voluntary basis.