Northern Ireland gritting policy ‘a disgrace’ - expert warns of rise in untreated roads
Gritters could be locked up and Northern Ireland's roads left untreated in future as a result of budget cuts and the Stormont crisis, it has been claimed.
The Department of Infrastructure (DfI) has been criticised after snow brought chaos to the province on Tuesday night resulting in public transport services being cancelled.
Belfast City Councillor Peter Johnston branded the department an "absolute disgrace" and accused it of neglecting roads after he was caught up in a car accident on his way home.
The UUP representative said main roads in the city - including the Albert Bridge Road, Belmont Road, Newtownards Road and the A55 near the busy Knock junction - did not appear to have been treated at all on Tuesday night.
"The conditions were appalling the entire way," he said. "Roads had not been treated, I've never seen busy roads in such a bad way."
Mr Johnston was approaching the roundabout outside Campbell College in east Belfast when another vehicle skidded into the side of his.
"It's one of the busiest roundabouts connecting traffic to the outer ring and yet the road surface was like a sheet of glass, which as far as I am concerned is complete negligence," he said.
"This shouldn't be happening in a modern city and yet no one is accountable because there is no government minister - it is now time that these powers are given back to councils."
A departmental spokesperson insisted some busy routes were gritted up to five times within a 14-hour period and that all main roads in east Belfast were treated three times on Tuesday afternoon.
The criticism comes as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) issued a warning that roads may not be salted at all next winter.
Regional director Richard Kirk has pointed to the recently published Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-20 which includes proposals to slash the day-to-day running costs for the road network to £16.5m for 2018-19 and £9.6m for 2019-20. "It's conceivable that next winter the public could be left to fend for themselves in adverse conditions," he said.
Mr Kirk, who claimed the cuts could result in gritters being parked up and rendered useless, said failure to invest in critical infrastructure will cost lives.
A DfI spokesperson said all difficult financial decisions will be taken by a "future" minister.
Meanwhile, a leading trade union has claimed roads are not being gritted to acceptable standards due to staffing issues within DfI.
Unite regional officer Gareth Scott said rosters to cover gritting services are proving inadequate in some places, particularly in rural areas such as Down and Antrim.
Mr Scott claims a contentious equal pay dispute lies at the heart of the crisis.
He said his union has been raising concerns for many years over a fixed overtime rate which means some staff are paid considerably more to perform the same work as colleagues.
"There is ever greater awareness that Transport NI workers are receiving significantly less for this work than those on higher pay-scales elsewhere in the public service, let alone what is being paid to private sector contractors," he said.
Mr Scott said he warned department officials, especially in recent weeks, that workers would likely refuse to volunteer for overtime and accused management of failing to act - but was told the situation cannot be resolved in the absence of a minister.
Now he is warning that a failure to stop "exploiting the goodwill" of staff will result in even bigger problems.
A DfI spokesperson said pay talks are ongoing but insisted the issue has not affected its winter service operation which began in November and will continue, fully staffed, until April.
Translink said all rail services and the majority of bus routes were fully operational yesterday. It said all bus routes will fully resume when conditions improve sufficiently.