Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 15 January 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
It is my sad duty to inform the House of the death of Mr Tom Benson, a Member for the Strangford constituency. Mr Benson died on Christmas Eve, 24 December, and was buried on 28 December. He was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader, the Rt Hon David Trimble, I now call.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say a few brief words about the death of my Colleague Tom Benson on Christmas Eve, two months after he suffered a stroke.
Tom Benson gave 30 years of service to the Royal Ulster Constabulary before becoming active in party politics. He was elected to Ards Borough Council in 1985. The extent of his commitment to local government is clearly evidenced by the fact that he served as mayor of Ards Borough Council, chairman of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, and chairman of the Association of Local Authorities.
Tom Benson’s contribution did not end there. He was an elected member of the Forum and then of this Assembly. He consistently gave dedicated service, both in the Forum and the Assembly, to politics in Northern Ireland. He gave consistent support to us during negotiations for the agreement and subsequently in the implementation of the agreement.
I am sure that many other Members, like myself, will feel that they have lost a friend. However, Northern Ireland has also lost a dedicated public servant.
It has been decided that, instead of further tributes in the House at this time, a service of thanksgiving for the life of Tom Benson, in which his family will be able to participate, will be held in the Senate Chamber. The date and time of the service will be arranged by agreement with the family.
As a token of our respect for Mr Benson, the House will now be suspended until 11.00 am.
The sitting was suspended at 10.35 am.
On resuming —
I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on the response of the Roads Service to the severe weather conditions over the Christmas period.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
The exceptional weather over Christmas gave rise to considerable difficulties on the roads. We experienced the most significant widespread snowfall for nearly 20 years. Because of the public interest and the important operational and policy considerations surrounding the issue of salting the roads, I felt that it was important for me to make a statement to the Assembly.
I have already undertaken a preliminary review of the Roads Service response to the extreme weather conditions from 27 to 31 December and, in co-operation with the Regional Development Committee, I intend to reappraise the policy considerations pertaining to the salting of roads.
Before I deal with the detail of the operation over Christmas, it will be helpful to Members if I set out the current policy concerning salting.
Roads Service spends £5 million per year on salting roads in Northern Ireland, or £70,000 each time the entire designated network is salted. This allows for salting of that portion of the network which carries approximately 80% of the traffic in normal conditions. Unfortunately, this money can be washed down the drain if rain falls and washes the salt away. If Roads Service were to extend its salting schedule to those roads that carry 90% of the traffic, the bill would immediately double to £10 million annually. That does not include £18 million of additional costs for capital equipment. Salting the entire network would require a capital investment of £36 million, and quadruple the running costs to £20 million per year.
Strict criteria were established in a review undertaken in 1996 and are applied regularly in order to determine which roads are included in the salting schedule. The purpose of having criteria is to ensure that optimum use is made of the limited resources available. The criteria are based primarily on the levels of traffic using a road, with other relevant considerations taken into account depending on the individual situation. Only last year, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reported on the Roads Service winter maintenance policy. Its report said that
"NIAO welcomes the objective criteria now being used by Roads Service to select roads which are salted or provided with salt bins or grit piles."
The data-gathering system deployed by Roads Service in deciding whether or not to salt is at the leading edge of technology. There are 17 weather stations across Northern Ireland, covering different climatic conditions. Linked to each weather station is an ice-detection sensor positioned in the road surface. The information collected by these stations is transmitted to a central computer and is accessed by Roads Service duty engineers, via their laptop computers, on a 24-hour basis.
The computers display thermal maps showing the variation in predicted road surface temperatures across the entire salted network and other weather forecast data for Northern Ireland supplied by the Met Office. Based on this and local knowledge, each duty engineer decides whether or not it is appropriate to salt in his local area. The timing of the salting is carefully judged to benefit the majority of vehicles and, as far as possible, is completed before freezing occurs. The Roads Service does not normally undertake salting during heavy rain, as the salt would simply be washed away, or on dry roads, since ice would not form even if the temperature were to fall below zero.
A number of general points should also be made about the limit of what can be achieved by salting roads. If it rains, the salt is washed away, and if the temperature falls below zero, the wet surface may freeze. Salt does not act immediately. It needs the action of traffic to turn salt and ice into a solution before it becomes effective. The effectiveness of salt is dramatically reduced as the temperature falls. Salt is not as effective on fallen snow.
Between 27 and 31 December, the Province experienced exceptional weather conditions. The minimum road surface temperature measured by the road sensors was below -10ºC. The minimum temperature measured on the surface of the snow by the Met Office was -18ºC. The main band of snow reached the Foyle Basin by 1.00pm on 27 December and had reached all parts of Northern Ireland within four hours. It reached the greater Belfast area by 2.45pm. There were accumulations of snow of up to seven inches in depth in the east of Northern Ireland, and in the greater Belfast area in particular.
The Met Office forecast had given prior warning of some snow, which prompted the Roads Service to initiate precautionary treatment of the salted network. Prior to the onset of the severe weather, a major Roads Service operation was put into action, involving approximately 400 people, including engineers, technicians, drivers and associated staff, as well as a fleet of 135 gritters, many of which had to be fitted with snow ploughs.
The Roads Service informed me that on 27 December, during the 12-hour period prior to the snowfall, salt was spread on all roads on the salting schedule. For example, salting in Belfast commenced at 3.30am and recommenced at midday. However, the effectiveness of the salt was reduced because of the very low temperatures, the depth of the snow and because the action of salt on snow is not as effective as it is on ice. As a result of the exceptionally low temperatures and the prevailing weather conditions, a blanket of snow lay until Sunday 31 December.
At the end of the four-day period, a total of 17,000 tonnes of salt had been used. This represents one third of the average winter salt used over each of the past five years. Also, 50,000 miles were covered by the gritters and snowploughs when salting. This is equivalent to journeying twice around the world.
The entire Roads Service operation cost more than £850,000. This was additional. Therefore, such was the severity of the conditions that in four days we spent 17% of the winter maintenance budget.
I trust that this summary of events has demonstrated the difficulties encountered by the Roads Service during the recent cold spell. I hope that Members will agree that the 400 or so members of Roads Service staff involved in the salting operation deserve credit for their efforts in what were very exceptional conditions. In particular, the drivers of the gritters deserve special mention.
Immediately after the Christmas holidays, I instigated an internal review of the approach undertaken by the Roads Service. I received a full briefing on that last week, and overall, given the conditions and the resources available to them, the Roads Service staff performed exceptionally well during this period.
It is important, however, that lessons be learned. The following actions have been agreed as a result of the interim review. The present communication links will be reviewed to ensure that the public is kept informed; the establishment of priority routes for treatment will be considered to guarantee access to key public services in snowy conditions; the criteria for the establishment of self-help salt boxes will be reviewed; consideration will be given to a general winter service leaflet drop to all households prior to the winter season; the salting schedule will be provided, (for example, to local papers and on the Internet); district councils will be invited to work with the Roads Service to clear pedestrian areas and town- centre footpaths during extreme weather conditions; and the arrangements for dealing with a prolonged emergency will also be reviewed.
Given the size and prolonged duration of the operation, most things went well. Inevitably some things went wrong. However, I believe that the issue of winter salting is important for the entire population of Northern Ireland and their public representatives. Now that we have a Regional Development Committee, I feel it is appropriate to revisit the issue. The last review was five years ago, and we should examine the decisions taken at that time. I will therefore initiate a reappraisal of the current policy when I meet members of the Committee this Wednesday, and I will request their involvement.
In conclusion, I am aware of the common perception that salting and ploughing can ensure ice-or snow-free roads, regardless of the severity of the weather. As I mentioned earlier, this is not possible. No matter how much we choose to spend, ice-and snow-free roads cannot be guaranteed, as the recent spell of bad weather has proved.
Over the Christmas period, Northern Ireland experienced its worst weather for almost 20 years, leading us to mount the biggest ever response operation. The Roads Service has at no time displayed complacency. The points that I outlined indicate that we must build on our strengths in these areas and analyse further areas for improvement.
The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness):
All of us recognise the exceptional weather conditions that existed during the period referred to by the Minister in his statement. No one, not even I, can blame the Minister personally for those conditions. However, as Chairman of the Regional Development Committee, I share Assembly concerns about the operational response of the Department and the Roads Service to this difficult situation.
I thank the Minister for his statement on the Department’s handling of road gritting during the recent, severe cold weather spell. I further thank the Minister for agreeing to come to the Regional Development Committee’s meeting on Wednesday to discuss this issue and consider a reappraisal of those policy considerations which relate to road gritting and salting. The Committee looks forward to that meeting. It may well be that the criteria used for the selection of roads will be subject to further review and consideration.
However, I must say that —
Will the Member come to his question.
Mr A Maginness:
I am somewhat disappointed by the lack of detail in the Minister’s statement. I hope that further detail will be forthcoming. I have one specific question for the Minister. While I acknowledge that the extreme weather conditions at the time were severe, the public perception is that the Department failed to keep the main arterial routes open.
In particular, the M2 and the M22 were severely affected. It seemed to the public, from anecdotal evidence, that the route from north-west Belfast to Belfast International Airport was closed for a considerable time, and that when it was reopened it was treacherous. Why was that important arterial route not kept clear for the free passage of traffic?
This is the first occasion on which I have spoken here since the deplorable attack on the Belfast premises of the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee. I utterly condemn such attacks on the property of any elected representative.
As for the issue that he raised, there will always be locations where individual public representatives and members of the public are concerned about what they perceive to be the non-salting or the inadequate salting of a road. That will always be a difficulty in such extreme weather conditions. I undertake to respond to Mr Maginness verbally on Wednesday morning and, if necessary, in writing, in relation to the salting of the M2 and the motorway network.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Like him, we offer no criticism of the Roads Service staff who were employed in attempting to deal with the great crisis.
However, a number of issues are outstanding. The Minister will undoubtedly be aware of the real anger that many people felt all over Northern Ireland, and particularly in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, about the lack of gritting on what are classified as minor roads. Can the Minister assure me that he will undertake an urgent review of gritting schedules in my constituency? We need to ensure that roads classified as minor roads, but which are nonetheless important link roads, receive equitable treatment in wintry conditions.
Will the Minister tell us how much grit was available in regional depots in advance of the extreme weather conditions, and whether those supplies were considered adequate? The Minister said that the Met Office gave a warning about weather conditions. When was that warning received? Were adequate measures put in place to ensure that it was dealt with?
Finally, I want to ask —
This is an opportunity for individual Members to ask individual questions, not questions with as many legs as a centipede.
Mr Speaker, I am grateful for your indulgence.
Given the stringent criteria used by the Minister’s Department, surely his Department is left open to some criticism. The road network around Parliament Buildings was gritted, yet roads throughout Northern Ireland were not.
I have no figures for the precise amount of salt available in the Newry and Armagh area, but I will undertake to see if it is possible to establish them. I draw the Member’s attention to the figure of 17,000 tonnes of salt that I cited for all of Northern Ireland.
I attempted to cover the issue of advance knowledge in my explanation of the role of road sensors — which are the responsibility of Roads Service — and Met Office information, both of which are used to ensure that advance salting takes place.
In the greater Belfast area there were two advance salting treatments — one at 3·30 am and one at midday. I did not make reference to the Newry/Armagh area but I will establish what advance preparation took place in the Member’s constituency and write to him regarding that matter.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Any reasonable person will recognise that the turn in the weather was severe and quick. As Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I ask the Minister if he feels that urban areas have an advantage over outlying rural areas in the gritting programme. Outlying rural districts have more problems as a result of such a turn in the weather than do rural districts. As a result, farmers in those areas have difficulty foddering their stock. In the Minister’s reappraisal, will he announce an enquiry into allegations that some farmers who asked to be supplied with gritting material were refused? Those farmers said that they would pay for it but the Department for Regional Development would not sell it to them. That is a serious matter — if it in fact arose.
Regarding the vehicles that required attachments, there is evidence to suggest that in some cases the attachment was at one district office and the vehicle was at another, and due to the snow the vehicle could not get to the place where the attachment was. The Minister must examine that claim.
The Department did the best it could in such a freak storm, and I do not think that anyone here will want to indict the Minister or his officials. However, the Department for Regional Development must instigate a complete review of the situation and deal with the points raised by public representatives — just as Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) did when it got into trouble.
My reassessment will include a review of the criteria for the establishment of self-help salt boxes. In rural areas, particularly where the farming community needs to gain access to the more heavily used routes, salt boxes ought to be — and for the most part are — provided. However, the Department for Regional Development will endeavour to see where additional measures of assistance can be taken.
I am not aware of any problems regarding the provision of snowploughs and their required attachments, or of a problem where an operation took place in one division while the work to be carried out was in another. If such problems exist, I will undertake to investigate them and ensure that they are ironed out immediately before further snow falls. The Department’s difficulty in reviewing the criteria will be one of resources. Whatever happens as an outcome of the reassessment will have implications for the budget of the Department for Regional Development. However, I am happy to take those and other views on board.
It may be because this is the first sitting since recess, but Members appear to have got out of the good habit of being concise in their questions. I appeal to Members to be as concise as possible as many Members wish to put questions. Standing Orders set a time limit of one hour for these questions, and we want to try to get as many asked as possible.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom na daoine ar an talamh a mholadh as an obair ar fónamh a rinne siad. I commend those who worked so hard on the ground over the Christmas period, although it is clear that Members who are sporting healthy tans did not experience the problems that some of the rest of us did with the winter gritting schedule.
I would like to see fresh, innovative thinking from the Minister and the Department. I would also like to see the establishment of an interdepartmental task force consisting of representatives from the Department for Regional Development, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the farmers’ unions. This body could aid the Minister to examine the possibility of tasking farmers to grit some of the network which is not being reached, and of remunerating them to do so. This is already in order with respect to some snow clearance work, but it could apply similarly to gritting in rural areas. Given the current crisis in agriculture, this would supply a good supplementary income for farmers. Will the Minister assure the House that he will consider establishing such a task force, with these aims in mind?
Members will recall that one of the seven reassessment points that I mentioned was that I would invite district councils to work with Roads Service in the clearance of pedestrian areas and town centre footpaths during extreme weather conditions. I am prepared to analyse what help district councils could provide, and what co-operative arrangements we could enter into with them to assist in dealing with very extreme climatic conditions. If other matters pertain, particularly to the rural community, I will be happy to invite district councils and others to assess whether the current methodology is the best one, and, if not, how we can improve upon it.
Mrs E Bell:
I also welcome the statement. I agree that Roads Service staff did the best job they could in the conditions. Local difficulties arose, but we need to recognise that these were freak weather conditions. In his statement the Minister talks about salt, about its disadvantages and the fact that it does not always work, especially with snow. I take on board what the Minister said about money and the fact that we do not have these conditions all the time, but I have been told by people from other countries that there are other types of salt which work with snow. In the review, will consideration be given to the type of salt that should be used?
In some ways it was good that the snow fell during the holiday period, but if it had happened during a time when many people were going to work, I am sure that the main roads would have been salted.
I press the Member to put her question.
Mrs E Bell:
They are questions, Mr Speaker, but I appreciate what you are saying.
Will the criteria of roads, especially school routes, be looked at? Finally, is the Minister satisfied with the level of co-ordination between sections of Roads Service and other agencies?
I also welcome the review. It is very prompt work by the Department.
Alternative de-icing materials is an issue that raises its head from time to time and one on which I requested information immediately after the Christmas holidays. I am informed that there are a number of alternative materials such as calcium magnesium acetate and calcium chloride.
The fact remains that salt is still the main material used on the European roads network. Urea is used on steel bridges, including at least one in Northern Ireland, as well as on airport runways because it is less corrosive to steel and aluminium. However, it is less effective, more environmentally damaging, and twice as expensive as salt. Clearway is used to de-ice runways, but costs 30 times more than salt. Even those authorities using Clearway struggled to keep airports open throughout the four days mentioned.
There are many other materials, the cost and effectiveness of which range widely. I have to reiterate that there is a need to be cognisant of the substantial additional cost that would be incurred if we were to consider some of the much more expensive materials that I have itemised. We will look at these. However, to consider using materials that cost up to 30 times more than salt would substantially inhibit the amount of such material that would be available. It would reduce, rather then increase, the extent of the roads network which could be covered in extreme weather conditions. I will write to the honourable Member in response to that particular issue.
Heavy snow was forecast for the afternoon of the 27 December, yet traffic was at a standstill on the M2 and the M5 with lorries jack-knifed and vehicles abandoned. Whilst the conditions were extreme, it was taking drivers up to four hours to travel a distance of about seven miles. Will the Department undertake to investigate why there were so few emergency vehicles? There were none on that stretch of the M2 and M5 for long periods during the rush hour despite heavy snow having been forecast well in advance.
I will undertake to analyse the time period. I heard the reference to the M2 and the M5 and I take it that the Member was referring to the afternoon of 27 December. I will undertake to establish, if possible, the number of vehicles that were salting that route at that time, and I will respond in writing.
I cannot welcome the statement because it pre-empted a motion I tabled last week, which is no longer going to be discussed. Nonetheless, may I invite the Minister to go back to his office, put on his wellington boots and stick the boot into Roads Service management, who allowed this complete fiasco to happen. It may happen only once every 20 years, but the lack of forward planning and preparation was scandalous.
For instance, the Minister referred to 135 gritting machines. Drivers and technicians were deployed in Newry, but the snowploughs were in Armagh city. The vehicles could not do their work. Something is drastically wrong when that happens. The Minister also talked about considering the establishment of priority routes. Will he reconsider the old classification of roads: A, B, C and unclassified? That classification is almost 100 years old and does not take into account the location of nursing homes, health centres, GP out-of-hours services, hospitals and other essential services.
Will he also consider ensuring that at least one food retail outlet is available in all rural areas? During the Christmas storms many people were stuck without transport, water, food, heat and power.
Finally, will he use his good offices and those of his Department to try and help co-ordinate responses to these circumstances? There was no co-ordination among the district councils, the Water Service, the Roads Service, the Ambulance Service, out-of-hours GP services and the police. It was a complete fiasco. We cannot wash our hands and say that we are all absolved just because the men and women on the ground did a good job. We have got to sort this problem out.
I hope that, upon mature reflection, Mr Fee will reconsider the advocacy of physical violence upon some of the staff.
I readily concede — I have said this several times to my officials and to public representatives — that there is a huge disparity between the public expectation of snow- free and ice-free roads and the reality on some occasions. There must be, and there will be, no complacency whatsoever in the Department for Regional Development; however, we must operate within existing confines.
I understand the Member’s frustration, and that of the people whom he represents, in relation to the situation in his area. It is often the case that in traversing the main roads of Northern Ireland members of the public will have the perception that a main thoroughfare has not been salted if vehicles are sliding or there is a sparkle on the road. If they do not see a salting vehicle they again have the perception that the road has not been salted. It is very difficult to bridge the gap between public expectation and what happens on the ground. I repeat that there is not, and there will not be, any complacency.
I will review the arrangements in relation to Newry and Armagh as for every other part of Northern Ireland. I reiterate, however, that, given the extreme circumstances, with a temperature of minus 10 degrees Celsius, or even lower, on the road surface, salt was not fully effective. People assumed that roads were not salted when in fact they were. I assure Members that we will review the conditions that people were faced with from 27 December to 31 December. [Interruption]
I am not quite sure what the Morse message being transmitted was, but we will try to make sure that it is picked up.
I too thank the Minister for his statement, and I join in the widespread expression of thanks to the Department for Regional Development’s staff on the ground — it is well deserved in many cases. I welcome the proposed review and the possibility of the inclusion of district councils in the solution to the problem.
I want to turn to an issue, on page two of the statement, which has already been touched on by many Members. The problem lies with the objective criteria. We are seeking greater subjectivity, particularly for the 20% of the population who are not covered, as Dr Paisley mentioned, by the present criteria. People want to know that their children can get to and from school safely. They want to know that those involved in community care — doctors, nurses and home helps — can exercise their duty of care. Farmers want to know that feed lorries and milk tankers can get through. Householders want to be sure that refuse can be collected. In short, the rural population wants proper services. Perhaps it does not mind the 8% increase in regional rates so much, providing that it gets value for money from it. Can we be assured that a review will take this on board?
As regards salting materials, the Minister talked about the cost difficulties in relation to the materials being investigated. However, is there ongoing research and development into alternative salting materials that could be utilised in severe weather conditions?