I welcome this opportunity to debate the issue of gritting. It is simply incredible that in the 21st century my constituency was virtually brought to a standstill, people were trapped in their homes and businesses stopped trading, all because of snow, ice and the failure of Lancashire county council to take the necessary action. I shall give first-hand examples of the problems that residents and businesses faced owing to the council’s failures not just this winter but in 2009, and seek to outline the limitations that prevent residents and their elected representatives from holding the local highways authority to account.
The Minister will be fully aware of my constituents’ anger on this issue following the question I put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, on 11 January. In his reply, he said that we
“need to ensure that we highlight the parts of the country in which councils have not provided the service that they should have done.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 424.]
That is my purpose today.
Let me be clear from the outset that I have had concerns about the gritting performance of Lancashire county council under both Labour and Conservative administrations. The safety and well-being of West Lancashire residents is my only concern. Following the severe winter conditions in February 2009, I called on the council to review its gritting policy, with an expectation that it would learn from its poor performance and avoid repeating the failures of that winter. Twelve months on, nothing has changed, and judging by the comments from the cabinet member for the environment, nothing will change when it comes to gritting. He said that the county council would carry out another review to learn the lessons from this winter, but concluded by saying, “I don’t think there’s any question of changing policy.”
As the Minister will know, local councils have a duty under the Highways Act 1980, as amended by the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. Under the latter, highways authorities have
“a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.”
However, in much of the country, fewer and fewer roads are being gritted. My argument is that Lancashire county council is not meeting its duty, as is evident from the litany of complaints I receive every winter and the horror stories of accidents, injuries, damage and near misses.
In Ormskirk, the town centre and adjoining car parks were not gritted, which meant that shoppers and businesses were seriously affected. Many people fell and sustained injuries. In Skelmersdale, which is a new town, even the main bus terminus was not gritted, which meant that buses could not get up the ramp. Pedestrians had to hail a bus if and when they saw one. Roads and steps in the entrances to underpasses were not gritted. How were people supposed to move across the town safely?
Constituents contacted me to complain that they were losing money every day that they could not get to work. As we know, it is tough for hard-working families in the current climate, so the failures of Lancashire county council made it unnecessarily harder and tougher for people to pay their bills at the end of the month. Many elderly people report that they could not leave their homes to shop or get to the doctors during the big freeze. A mother contacted me because she had no way of getting her disabled daughter to school. In the end, both were stranded at home for nearly a week. They did not even get out for food shopping.
In 2009, a bus skidded on the ungritted roads of Skelmersdale and ended up marooned in the middle of a roundabout. It was carrying passengers at the time. Was the lesson learned? Sadly it was not, because this January a bus hit a lamp post, which took out three panels from a resident’s garden fence. That happened at a bus stop where eight double-decker buses per hour are required to stop, yet the council continued to refuse to grit the road. Luckily, there were no serious injuries in either case.
For the safety of its drivers, other motorists and passengers, Arriva, the local bus company, suspended bus services for several days, leaving my constituents stranded and unable to shop or go to work, which is an horrendous statement for the 21st century. Yet the leader of Lancashire county council delighted in telling me and other listeners to a radio interview he gave that he was not going to grit all bus routes. That short-sighted decision meant a 60 per cent. reduction in revenues for the bus companies, my constituents not getting to work and business output reduced—the economics of the madhouse.
Last year, several older people slipped on the ice using the only pedestrian walkway into the Concourse shopping centre because it had not been gritted. Lancashire county council’s response was to tell me that it was not prepared to grit the walkway because the salt would corrode the metal bridge. My constituents took that to mean that the council cared more about the bridge than about them, and that they should feel free to break a leg. It is outrageous that this should have happened.
This year, the one-way system in the Pimbo industrial estate was not gritted at all. The gritter went round the roundabout and ignored the industrial estate, which meant that when a HGV jack-knifed, other vehicles could not get out of the estate, so they had to travel, in treacherous conditions, the wrong way against the flow of incoming traffic. It could not have been more dangerous. Who would have been responsible if anyone had been killed? These questions need answering.
Fearful for their staff and drivers, many local businesses, such as Hotter Shoes, paid themselves for a snow plough to make the road safer. The council refuses to reimburse those businesses and individual local residents, such as Joe Walker, who paid for their own grit to do the job that the county council failed to do. Why should council tax payers have to pay twice for a job that Lancashire county council did not manage to do once?
Residents asked for grit bins to be filled, and where pensioners had fallen the previous year, they requested grit bins so that people could grit the pavements themselves. Those requests fell on deaf ears. But here in Westminster, the council proudly boasts that it clears all the pavements—let alone important roads or ramps—by moving staff from other duties to clear the snow. In a leaflet, the council asked local residents, “Did we clear it quickly enough for you?” So what is wrong with the planning or management in other councils? After all, many of those councils have several executives who earn more than the Prime Minister. Surely someone can resolve these problems.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the Department for Transport should bear some responsibility for the problem, given that it took from August to December to respond to the LGA inquiry about the need for greater grit stocks to be held by local authorities?
I do not accept that in any way. Anyone who gets paid more than the Prime Minister should come to work in the morning with a dose of common sense, not to mention be capable of buying some grit. I am sure that the Minister will make the point that these powers are devolved to local authorities and that they should get on with it. When the Government have to step in to rescue local authorities because they do not have enough grit, other local authorities blame the Government for doing that. So I am not able to agree with the hon. Gentleman.
What can we do? First, we must encourage people to grit their streets by clearly stating that they will not be liable should someone fall. Secondly, we must provide grit bins and, thirdly—I said that it was common sense—we need to fill them with grit. But this is just part of the solution. I believe that local authorities need to be better prepared for severe weather conditions. If we accept the arguments about climate change, we should expect very cold spells to be more frequent. Each time the weather is really bad, all we hear is that this is the worst winter on record. The underlying problem is that local authorities do not have effective plans in place to deal with the conditions, save the hope that the snow and ice will melt within a day or so.
The Federation of Small Businesses conducted a survey whose results indicate that 75 per cent. of respondents have a contingency plan to avoid disruption during extreme weather. Public organisations, on the other hand, appear to have an emergency plan for every eventuality except the one event that happens every year—winter. No one is saying that millions should be wasted, but there should be a decent contingency plan that includes moving other council employees on to the task of helping with clearing streets and pavements. In West Lancashire, the bin men could not empty the bins because the county council had not gritted the roads, and in those conditions they were sent home. Whatever happened to joined-up thinking or working between two authorities?
I welcomed Lord Adonis’s evidence to the Select Committee on Transport when he said that he would be prepared to consider enforceable minimum national standards, including that a certain number of days’ grit be held by each local authority, if so recommended by the current inquiry. If the Committee has not completed its inquiry, I would recommend a visit to West Lancashire, where the people would be able to share their dreadful experiences and show Committee members exactly what happened in the last few winters.
The man in the street has given me many suggestions. “Bring back snow shifters,” I was told. We could also pay able-bodied unemployed people to help or have a database of farmers with suitable equipment who could help. None of this is rocket science; it is pretty basic. The fundamental problem, which I hope the Minister will help us to address, is this. Who assesses whether local authorities are failing—or not—to meet their duty under the Highways Act 1980? At present it would appear that local councils simply self-regulate.
Where do council tax payers go to seek redress for such a dreadful state of affairs? To the Health and Safety Executive? I tried that last year and was told that it could not act. To the ombudsman? I am now telling anybody with a grievance to lodge a complaint. To the Government? Trying to allow people safe passage in Arctic conditions is like playing the biggest game of pass the parcel that I have ever been involved in. This is the 21st century. People should not become prisoners in their own homes because they fear going out. They should not have to risk injury trying to go to work or the shops, or to care for the elderly. This cannot go on. We need to step up to the plate and ensure that lives are not put at risk by councils that hope that the problems will simply melt away.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this timely debate on the gritting of our roads. I know that she is a tireless champion for her constituents in West Lancashire. I know, too, that she has raised the matter with the Leader of the House, in order for time to be found for a debate, so I am pleased that we are here this evening.
I should start by putting the issues in context. This year has seen—indeed, in some regions we are still experiencing—the worst winter conditions for 30 years. This has been the coldest winter since 1981-82 across England, and the coldest since 1978-79 across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Snow settled across the country before Christmas, and again in January, shortly after the holiday season. Although recent snowfall has been limited to certain areas of the country, overnight frosts have remained a regular occurrence throughout much of the winter season.
I am extremely grateful to the winter service staff in highways authorities across the country, who have worked tirelessly to minimise the disruption through what has been a very difficult winter. My hon. Friend has spoken in strong terms about her concerns regarding the performance of her local authority’s winter service during the last two winters. Responsibility for gritting our roads largely rests with local authorities. More than 95 per cent. of English roads are managed by local authorities. As she described, highways authorities have a legal duty under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 to
“ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.”
The duty also applies to pavements that form part of the public highway.
The code of practice of highway maintenance, published free by the UK Roads Liaison Group on its website, includes guidance on winter maintenance. The code recommends that authorities draw up a winter service operational plan, in consultation with a range of stakeholders. Although updated in the light of last year’s severe weather, the code has been available since 2005.
The code of practice encourages authorities regularly to review their winter service strategies, as I know my hon. Friend thinks they should. The code also recognises that local authorities might need to prioritise the roads to be cleared of snow and ice, and it recommends that they keep road users informed of their winter service plans.
A number of the code’s recommendations cover my hon. Friend’s concerns about the performance of her local authority. The guidance states that winter service planning should take the needs of pedestrians into account and recognise the special needs of the disabled and elderly. The advice mentions that communities that are not on priority routes or that are on particularly difficult roads can be helped. An example would be to provide grit bins—and include arrangements for their replenishment—near a gradient or sharp bend.
The code also recommends close liaison with public transport operators, both at the annual review and on an ongoing basis. It advises that the maintenance of safe and reliable access to emergency facilities should be a key consideration. The need to assign a degree of priority to the maintenance of safe and reliable access to main industrial and business centres of key importance to the local economy is noted. The code also notes that such issues will not be clear cut, and that they will require careful consideration in the light of local circumstances.
These are clearly areas in which local authorities are best placed to make their own judgments based on their local knowledge. The size and nature of local road networks across the country vary considerably, and it would not be sensible to try to direct winter service policies through central Government. An understanding of local needs, and the desire to respond to them, are vital to delivering an effective winter service.
The code of practice will assist local highway authorities with planning their winter service, but this winter’s extreme weather presented challenges for all those involved in delivering our transport services. The delivery of local services will vary and, while I cannot comment specifically on the service provided by my hon. Friend’s authority, I recognise that this unprecedentedly prolonged and exceptionally cold winter has caused difficulty for all highway authorities. The exceptionally cold conditions put pressure on the nation’s supply of salt, which is used to treat roads affected by snow and ice. The challenges faced by highway authorities meant that many had to take difficult decisions regarding the extent to which they could deliver their planned level of service.
Climate change is an important challenge for everyone, as my hon. Friend suggested. Warmer, wetter winters are predicted, and this, combined with the UK’s record of experiencing relatively mild winters over the past decade, might have lulled highway authorities into a false sense of security. A series of consecutive mild winters meant that authorities might have been tempted to save money by holding lower salt stocks. When a colder winter arrived, the suppliers became inundated with last-minute requests for deliveries of salt.
The Government and the devolved Administrations, with the support of the Local Government Association, took action to manage the threat to our transport system posed by the pressures on the nation’s salt supplies. Together, we established the Salt Cell. This winter and last, the Salt Cell has been successful in ensuring that not a single highway authority has run out of salt. In January, we took the decision to direct the Highways Agency—and to ask highway authorities—to reduce salt use by between 40 and 50 per cent. Our priority has been to ensure the continued delivery of essential goods and services.
My hon. Friend mentioned her concerns about the performance of her authority during the past two winters. The winter of 2008-09 was severe, and the worst for almost 20 years. Following that winter, some highway authorities reviewed their winter service in line with the 19 recommendations in the UK Roads Liaison Group’s report, “Lessons from the Severe Weather of February 2009”. I would say to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) that local authorities were made well aware of the recommendations in that review during the summer of last year. Some, however, may have interpreted 2009 as a one-off event and did not increase their preparedness.
It is the decisions taken by local authorities, including my hon. Friend’s council, on how they prepare for winter that determine how many local roads and pavements can be gritted when winter arrives. As a nation, we cannot rely on the Salt Cell to carry us through every winter. Authorities should be entering winter better prepared. Those authorities that did not do so well will need to get their act together. Authorities can no longer expect new supplies of salt to be delivered to their salt barns as soon as they have run low. The lead-in times for salt production should not be ignored. Highways authorities must take action now to re-stock their salt barns and avoid a recurrence of this winter’s disruptions.
We expect to be in a position to withdraw the operation of Salt Cell shortly. Once that happens the Department for Transport will commission an independent review of the way the country’s transport systems coped with this year’s winter. However, we should not forget the excellent work of the UK Roads Liaison Group in the light of last year’s weather. Its recommendations remain just as relevant today as when they were published last July. If all highways authorities had taken on board those recommendations, there is no doubt that we would have seen far greater levels of preparedness. I encourage highway authorities to act on those recommendations now in preparation for next winter.
In hindsight, would it have been advisable for the Department to have responded more promptly to those recommendations so that local authorities could have acted with the support of the Department rather than sticking their necks out and possibly holding big supplies of salt in advance of what might have been mild winter?
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire made it very clear, as have I, that the legislation puts the onus on the local authorities to be responsible. They knew what the contents of the UK Roads Liaison Group’s review recommended; they did not need us to tell them to put it into practice. We did respond to the recommendations, as was said, but it seems to me to be trying to pass the buck to suggest that local authorities somehow had to wait for the approval or rubber stamp of Government in order to take action on a responsibility that lay in the first instance with them.
Of course there is no one single solution to the problem. Authorities must seek to enter the winter season with greater capacity, but a day’s extra capacity alone merely means that we run out of salt one day later. We must look towards a range of solutions.
Finally, we should not lose sight of the contribution that the general public, including the servicemen and women in West Lancashire who my hon. Friend mentioned, made in rallying round and helping friends and neighbours who were particularly vulnerable in cold weather.
Before the Minister reaches any conclusions, I would like to ask him a question. He talks about the responsibility of the local authorities, but who monitors that? Who says whether the performance is good or not? I must draw his attention back to West Lancashire and, for example, the new town of Skelmersdale, which was designed to keep pedestrians and cars apart. Some roads were not properly gritted and side roads not gritted at all—I could mention at least one main road and bus routes that were not gritted—so if gritting is not done in places like Skelmersdale, which have underpasses, the imperative is this: how on earth are people to manage, and does anybody care?
I know my hon. Friend is frustrated by the prospect of her constituents having to take legal action, but that is, of course, one obvious route that they could take if they remained dissatisfied with the operation of their local authority in respect of the discharge of its responsibilities. At the end of the day, I suppose it is before the ballot box that the members of the council’s executive and the council at large would be judged on their performance by my hon. Friend’s constituents.
There is one point that I want to make clear in the context of people being helpful to their neighbours during periods of cold weather. I do not want householders and businesses to be discouraged from clearing their private drives and pathways of snow. I know that some employers in my hon. Friend’s constituency did just that. People must use their common sense, and not be put off by concerns about being sued. Although ultimately it is for the courts to decide the issue of any liability, it is hardly conceivable that a court will be hard on someone who is doing a proper job by their neighbours and their locality in keeping their driveway and pavement clear.
Of course I fully understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and many others about highway authorities’ capacity to grit their local roads and pavements as comprehensively as they might wish. We must learn the lessons presented by this winter, and we must rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of all the travelling public. We are all in this together. Every highway authority must play its part in keeping the country open, and provide an effective service for its communities throughout the winter season.
Question put and agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mary Creagh.)
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)