When the North experiences severe weather conditions, it undoubtedly makes travel more difficult, but as the Minister responsible for roads, I have seen at first hand the mammoth task that Roads Service carries out in keeping the main roads open.
Roads Service focuses its resources as agreed by the Assembly during the last review of this policy, in ensuring the main network which carries 80% of traffic is salted. This is a massive logistical task involving staff working night and day with 300 staff, 120 gritters and 11 snowblowers. Already during this winter, Roads Service has completed over 3000 gritting runs and has distributed 44,000 tonnes of salt to keep the main network open.
Additionally the Roads Service provides at strategic locations, approximately 3,500 salt boxes in residential areas and 39,000 grit piles for the rural community for use on a self help basis to help prevent the formation of snow and ice on pavements and untreated roads - and has been continually replenishing these during this cold spell.
For those who call on Roads Service to grit every single road - it would simply be impossible to do so.
Last year we were the only region in these islands that managed to keep the main road network open largely avoiding the economic damage done in other areas.
Again this year the gritters have been continually out, night and day, keeping the main road network open and the vast majority of traffic moving. This has been due to the effective management of the gritting operations and targeting the resources available on the busier main through routes.
As a rural dweller I appreciate the concerns of these communities and during this prolonged cold spell, Roads Service has directed significant resources towards gritting of the rural road network. Almost 16% of the total amount of salt used to date, was applied to local roads that were not on the salted network, to help alleviate conditions.
With regard to schools, following the severe wintry conditions experienced at the start of December 2008, I asked Roads Service to carry out an examination of its operational response to areas around rural schools. This examination resulted in Roads Service introducing enhanced communication arrangements and priority secondary salting to the 46 rural schools most affected by weather conditions throughout that winter. The list of schools benefiting from these actions is likely to change over time to include more schools, to take account of the extent to which adverse weather can affect different schools at different times.
On the issue of clearing and gritting footpaths an agreement has been in place since 2003 which offers the councils indemnity and salt from DRD for this purpose.
Northern Ireland Local Government Association endorsed the agreement and wrote to all councils, but only two, Belfast and Ballymena signed up to provide the service.
I asked Roads Service to revisit this issue again and earlier this year NILGA asked if indemnity could be added for third parties such as contractors that could assist the councils. That was added to the agreement and in May NILGA said they would consult with councils. Unfortunately the majority of Councils again rejected the proposals.
I met this week with NILGA to discuss and reaffirm my offer made earlier this year. I have received confirmation that a number of local councils including Derry, Limavady and Omagh are now moving to take up this offer, which I welcome. This demonstrates that their does exist a political willingness between both local government and my Department to work in partnership and deliver the necessary provision expected by ratepayers here.
I believe that my Department's winter service staff, many of whom are working long hours and in dangerous conditions, deserve credit not criticism for their handling of the recent gritting operations.