Rural Roads (Western Areas): Gritting

Oral Answers to Questions — Regional Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 24th January 2000.

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Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will introduce criteria to ensure that rural roads west of the Bann are treated during winter months.

(AQO 59/00)

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

asked the Minister for Regional Development what the criteria are for determining which roads should be gritted in the West Tyrone constituency.

6. (AQO 63/99)

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission I will take these two questions together.

The current criteria for salting roads in West Tyrone are those which are applied consistently across Northern Ireland. They provide that main through routes carrying 1500 vehicles or more per day are salted during wintry conditions.

In addition, some routes that carry more than 1,000 vehicles per day are salted provided that there are special circumstances, such as sharp bends or gradients. I appreciate the concerns about this matter. Gritting costs approximately £4.5 million each year and deals with the roads that carry 80% of all traffic. Any significant increase in gritting could only be achieved by diverting resources from elsewhere in the roads’ budget. I will, therefore, be consulting the Regional Development Committee about the priority which this aspect of roads expenditure should have and in particular, about the weighting to be given to rural areas.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his response. As he has outlined, the setting of the criteria is a complicated matter. I would draw the Minister’s attention to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report a few months ago, which indicated that a mere 20% of roads in rural areas in the west of the Province were included in the gritting programme. That is a significantly lower percentage than applies to other areas in the North of Ireland.

Will the Minister accept — and I speak as a member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee — that a great deal can be done to improve safety at very little cost? As he has referred to costs several times I suspect that his advisers are still in direct-rule mode — concentrating on costs above everything else. In the new situation, does the Minister agree that Roads Service policy needs to move from "savings first" to "safety first"?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The Member would be entirely wrong to direct that criticism at my officials. There is an assumption underlying his question that the gritting of roads is a safety matter and that other areas of expenditure by the Department are not safety related. Many of those matters are safety related, and difficult choices have to be made.

I am aware of the issue, particularly in Fermanagh. I visited the council there, and it was brought to my attention. I made it clear to the council that I would look specifically at whether some weighting should be attached to rural and remote areas when deciding whether roads should be gritted.

I ask Assembly Members to recognise that £22 provides one tonne of asphalt, which lasts for 20 years. It also provides one tonne of salt, which can be washed away in 20 minutes.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

With respect to the Minister’s last remark, is he aware that in much of rural West Tyrone many of the minor roads are awash with water because of the flow of surface water from adjoining lands? Department of Environment roads and drainage officials tell me that it is a common problem. Ground drainage, which is essential, was carried out 15 to 20 years ago under grant schemes, but much of the pipe work is silted, and the culvert apertures may be inadequate. Therefore, much of the salt, at £22 a tonne, does not even last 22 minutes on some of the roads. Will the Minister take this concern up with other Ministers to stop the roads of West Tyrone from becoming burns and sheughs?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I am glad to hear Ulster-Scots being used. I say to my hon Friend that there are drainage-related problems, and the possibility of salt being washed off the road is one of them. It is also frustrating for officials that when salt is put down, rain washes it away. There is more than one way of having salt washed off a road, with the consequent waste. I have asked officials to place a very useful leaflet that has been prepared by the Department and gives an explanation of a number of gritting problems in Members’ pigeonholes.

Members will recognise that gritting is a major problem that needs to be dealt with. However, if we could deal with 90% of the roads and have them salted, as opposed to 80%, the additional 10% would actually double the cost to road users.