Snow misery: Just who is responsible for clearing Northern Ireland roads and pathways? While leaders pass the buck, residents get shovelling
Roads Minister Danny Kennedy has shifted responsibility for gritting footpaths back on to councils – a day after the councils said it was up to him to keep our streets clear.
As dozens of families remain virtually housebound because of snow-covered pavements, the buck-passing continued over who is to blame for the debacle.
Mr Kennedy said that while he understands the public's anger, his department has no obligation to clear slippy pavements – adding that grit has been provided for councils to tackle the untreated walkways themselves.
It came 24 hours after the body which represents councils insisted the responsibility lies with Mr Kennedy's department alone.
As anger grew last night, there were calls for urgent talks to try and hammer out a way forward.
Glyn Roberts from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said the confusion cannot go on.
"While local councils have taken the lead in terms of town centres, outside of that there seems to be a dispute over who exactly is responsible for what," he said.
"Both sides need to sort it out once and for all because we cannot have this disagreement dragging on. We need to be clear whose responsibility it is. It is not acceptable for this blame game to be happening every time there is weather like this."
The chaos has infuriated people because it comes two years after Mr Kennedy claimed agreement had been reached between the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and councils for dealing with icy conditions.
Although some town and city centre paths have been cleared, many suburban areas and housing estates have not been touched.
Yesterday angry residents living at Glenmeen Close in west Belfast described their anger at the farce.
Patricia Reid has been left wondering why they pay road tax at all.
"It's just wrong. You pay your road tax, you're entitled to get out of your own street," she said.
Ted Holland used a forklift to clear the roads for eight hours so the Red Cross could reach development with emergency water supplies. "People needed help, and they needed homecare," he said. "You have to do what you have to do."
As anger intensified, Mr Kennedy told the Belfast Telegraph that his department's priority has been keeping the road network clear.
He said councils have been provided with resources including salt and grit to clear pavements,
"Legally there is no obligation within Roads Service or local government to clear footpaths, but clearly it is an issue of public interest," he said.
"We have brought forward a memorandum of understanding between 23 of the 26 councils and Roads Service to provide salt and manpower to assist with footpaths.
"I am aware of at least four councils who have been availing of that, including Belfast City Council, as well as Down, Larne and Newtownabbey councils.
"We are working through that and we will continue to work with and co-operate with the councils where possible."
But his comments are at odds with what the Northern Ireland Local Government Association – the umbrella body for councils here – has said.
Yesterday it claimed councils had no statutory duty or power to clear pathways – adding that responsibility lies firmly with DRD.
Mr Kennedy said his department has come under mounting pressure in the wake of last Friday's winter blast, which blanketed vast swathes of counties Antrim and Down in snow. Pavements in many areas have been buried under several feet of snow.
He added his department is doing everything possible to deal with the wintry conditions – but admitted footpaths were not the main focus for response units.
"Unfortunately, whilst we sympathise with all the people, businesses and farmers experiencing the current harsh conditions, it would take even more resources and staff to clear all the private roads and footpaths," Mr Kennedy added.
"Our current priorities must be to clear the snow on as many main and secondary roads as we can to help as many people as possible to travel on routes.
"We have arrangements with 23 councils to grit footpaths and will make salt and grit available free of charge to any councils who can help clear the ice and snow from town and city centre pavements."
Mr Kennedy denied that residents in suburban areas have been forgotten about.
"That is not the case but I think there is an understanding that Roads Service's prime responsibility is to keep the main network open," he added.
Struggling retailers left out in the cold after losing millions
By Claire McNeilly and Claire Graham
Northern Ireland retailers have lost out on millions of pounds because of the snow – and the bill is likely to continue to rise until the thaw comes.
New figures from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) showed there was a massive 48% drop in shopper numbers last weekend compared to the same time last year.
Economists have calculated that, so far, the total cost to the local economy is around £10m after the harsh weather hit last Friday.
Retailers will be hoping for a much-needed uplift in shoppers over the Bank Holiday weekend, when sales traditionally get a seasonal boost.
However, with the freezing conditions forecast to last until Easter, and more snow expected in some parts of the province, traders may find their tills are ringing less and less.
That's partly because hard-pressed consumers are using more oil and gas just to keep their homes warm, leaving less disposable income to spend on perceived luxuries such as clothes.
It's a far cry from the situation last year when an impromptu heatwave prompted a huge hike in ice-cream sales across the UK.
NIRC boss Aodhan Connolly said the adverse weather has come at the worst possible time for our embattled retailers.
"Over the past few months we have had severe disruption due to protests and consumer confidence was only starting to grow again, but this cold snap has left us with a situation where we lost almost half of our footfall in Northern Ireland compared to the same weekend last year," said Mr Connolly.
"The problems this snow has brought have not only affected shops but consumers as well with shops having to close because of power cuts and due to problems delivering to customers."
Mr Connolly said the Easter weekend is important on the retail calendar and said he hoped adverse weather conditions wouldn't affect trade.
"Through talks that we have had across the sector it is clear to see that this is affecting large and small retailers alike and coming as it does after other issues this past few months it continues to squeeze the retail sector, but our members are working to keep stores stocked and deliveries taking place – and we will literally weather this storm," he added.
Hotels and restaurants were also affected by weather-induced power cuts, including The Merchant Hotel in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter where the electricity went out for a short time.
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Association boss Glyn Roberts said shops took a serious hit last weekend. "They lost a significant amount, but hopefully they'll get back on track this Easter weekend," he said.
Economist John Simpson said shops were losing some £2.5m each day as a result of the unseasonable snow and icy conditions.
"Allowing for a week, from Thursday before the snow fell until today, there was probably £10m taken out of retail turnover across Northern Ireland," he said.
Janine Harpur, store manager at White Stuff at Belfast's Cornmarket, said sales were down on Friday and Saturday by 75% and 50% respectively.
Luxury clothing line Cruise, based in Victoria Square, also witnessed a dip in sales over the weekend, according to manager Sharon McGuirk, who blamed the adverse weather conditions and power shortages.
Meanwhile, Royal Avenue's Discount Store manager Anne Marie Rock described Friday's sales as "dismal", as takings slumped 50%.