The Government has been warned that savage cuts to road maintenance budgets are putting lives at risk as it emerged that millions of pounds have been slashed from funds used to keep the surfaces clear in winter.
Almost half of 13 councils in Yorkshire which responded to a Freedom of Information request by The Yorkshire Post now spend considerably less money on their winter maintenance budget compared to five years ago.
The budget, allocated annually as part of a local authority’s total spending to cope with cold snaps, covers costs including forecasting, precautions like salt gritting roads, snow clearance and standby highways crews.
For 2016/17, figures range from £174,000 for Hull City Council to more than £6m for North Yorkshire County Council, which maintains one of the largest road networks in the UK.
But despite seasonal weather becoming increasingly unpredictable, some local authorities say they have been forced to slash the amount they spend on the winter maintenance budget by as much as £200,000 because of Government funding cuts.
While councils have insisted that protecting people is a priority during winter, road safety campaigners have called for them to consider flexible budgeting to prepare surfaces for conditions and lower risk.
Neil Greif, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists RoadSmart, said: “Keeping Yorkshire moving safely has to be a top local authority priority, but if history teaches councils anything it is that trying to second guess the weather is fraught with difficulties. Budgeting needs to be flexible so that savings can be carried forward or extra resources made available if required.
“Front line staff should never have to worry about budget shortages as they go about their important work.”
The Yorkshire councils whose 2016/17 budget has been cut in the last five years when compared to 2011/12 include Bradford, North Yorkshire, Calderdale, Rotherham, Hull and East Lincolnshire.
North Yorkshire recorded the largest reduction – £264,000 –but the council still spends more than any other in the region.
Elsewhere, Bradford cut its budget by nearly £150,000 and Calderdale slashed its by £134,000. Bradford now has a budget of £790,000 compared to £936,000 in 2011/12, which is used to fund nearly 40 gritting vehicles that cover 600 miles of road. Coun Alex Ross-Shaw, Bradford Council’s executive member for regeneration, planning and transport, said: “We have had to make huge cuts in all our services due to the year-on-year reductions in the funding we receive from the Government.
“To put it into context, in just three years time Bradford Council will be half the size it was in 2010.
“Sadly, this has meant we cannot include as many roads as we used to in our precautionary gritting programme and this was agreed as part of last year’s budget.”
Coun Barry Collins, Calderdale Council’s cabinet member for regeneration and economic development, said: “Our winter maintenance budget covers all of the work required to help keep drivers and pedestrians safe when Calderdale is hit by snow or ice. From gritting roads and clearing snow, to restocking salt bins, our winter service is ready to work 24/7 when needed.
“To ensure that we carry out our winter duties as effectively as possible with limited budgets, we are moving to a risk-based approach, which is backed up by a new national code of practice by the UK Roads Liaison Group. Every road in Calderdale will be assessed and given a risk rating, which will determine whether, how and when it is gritted / treated.
“Safety is our top priority, so if the weather is severe and additional treatment of roads is needed, we fund this
from the council’s contingency budgets.”
Rural roads in North Yorkshire, which is England’s largest county, account for almost 75 per cent of the county’s roads network. Its 5,000 miles of roads equate to the distance from England to Pakistan.
The authority’s 2016/17 budget of £6.1m was cut more than any other by £264,000 when compared to 2011/12. It has a fleet of 93 gritting vehicles.
However, the council said that the budget reduction from previous years are because of operational efficiency savings.
The authority said its gritting policy has not changed during the period.
County councillor Don Mackenzie, executive member for highways, said: “Dealing with severe winter conditions on such a large roads network is complex and expensive. However, it remains a top priority to keep the county connected and enable residents and businesses to stay on the move.
“We have maintained the level of funding, meaning our winter service is the best resourced in England.”
The Department for Transport was unable to comment when contacted by The Yorkshire Post.