Ring Fence Winter Maintenance Budgets

Say AA and Salt Manufacturers' Association

The Salt Manufacturers' Association and the AA are calling for local authorities to ring fence their winter maintenance budgets. The joint plea follows recent announcements by several local authorities that they are intending to cut back on their winter highways maintenance programme in order to channel funds into other areas. The SMA and AA are concerned that such a move will prevent cold snaps and snowfalls being dealt with effectively, potentially putting the travelling public at greater risk of accidents.

SMA secretary, Peter Sherratt, comments, "Most authorities already salt only 40% of their routes and if some are now planning to cut this back further, they are likely to face real difficulties in treating the whole network within their area when the true cold snaps and snows arrive. Last winter was average, yet it still led to a number of local authorities overspending on their highways maintenance budget. Going forward, we would urge all local authorities to ring fence sufficient funds for winter maintenance from the outset and to have a contingency in place in the event of severe weather arriving late in the season."

Paul Watters, Head of Roads Policy for the AA adds, "Around 500 people are killed or seriously injured on icy or snow covered roads each year. Clearly not every road can be treated but it remains a lottery for drivers depending on whether they live in an area where highway budgets are stretched and so fewer roads get treated. Budgets for routine highway maintenance are not ring fenced and are often subject to 'easy' cuts when other pressing local authority services take higher priority – we would call for this practice to be changed."

Past research undertaken by the SMA revealed that there are huge discrepancies across the UK in the approaches that local authorities take to winter maintenance, the priority given to it and the extent to which they make their policies public. The 'duty to grit' legislation introduced in 2004 gives local authorities the responsibility of ensuring safe passage 'so far as is reasonably practical' and the Department of Transport publishes a 'Well-Maintained Highways' document, which includes advice for local authorities on winter highways maintenance.

The SMA and AA both feel, however, that the 'duty to grit' legislation does not go far enough towards ensuring that roads are made safe during the winter. Peter Sherratt concludes, "The legislation is certainly a step in the right direction but the interpretation of what exactly is 'reasonably practical' is subjective. When budgets and therefore gritting resources are cut, how does an authority decide which routes it is reasonably practical to stop salting? We recognise that winter maintenance budgeting is never going to be an exact science, particularly with the unpredictability of the UK weather, but we would ask local authorities to seriously reconsider before cutting back on their highways maintenance programmes."

(25 January 2007)