As part of its final ever budget in 2020-21, Northamptonshire County Council is making £500,000 worth of ‘savings’ in its winter gritting programme.
According to opposition councillors, this will see the number of roads that are gritted reduced from 42 per cent to 32 per cent, which makes up £300,000 of the estimated saving. Other proposals include reducing the number of grit runs by monitoring temperatures more efficiently, and reverting back to rock salt grit.
The council’s own overview and scrutiny committee - which is cross party - had warned against implementing the £300,000 cut due to ‘the risk that its impact will have unintended consequences that outweigh the benefit of the proposed saving’.
But cabinet member for highways, Councillor Jason Smithers, sought to reassure members of the public that it would not reduce safety on the roads.
Speaking at the budget meeting at County Hall on Thursday (February 20), he said: "I can guarantee that we will ensure our roads are kept safe and gritted throughout the season. That is a statutory requirement for us to do so. There will be no cars sliding all over the place like the hysteria being made out."
Earlier in the meeting, Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Chris Stanbra had put forward an amendment to the budget which called for the removal of the £300,000 gritting cut. He also slammed the Conservative party for revisiting the proposals after they had rowed back on similar cuts in last year’s budget.
He said: “These gritting cuts are not new. You have tried to do them before and then you realised it was a bad idea. The cuts this time are even more draconian than the ones you didn't like before.
“The overview and scrutiny committee has said they don't like it. And the highest proportion of comments in the consultation feedback disagreeing about a particular proposal was about the gritting."
To plug the financial gap, the Lib Dems suggested reducing the contribution to the budget contingency - which stood at £2 million - by £300,000.
But the council's Conservative leader Matt Golby indicated his party would not be voting for the amendment. He said: "We listened very carefully last time. And we are not going to be putting anything at risk with this winter maintenance.
“The whole point of this budget is financial stability. We are looking to increase our contingency, and this takes money away from that contingency. That is not the right thing to do."
With his right of reply, Councillor Stanbra said that if the difference between a robust budget and a financial crash was the sum in question then 'perhaps things are more fragile than the Conservatives make out'.
Although the financial cuts are now included in the 2020/21 budget, it is not yet clear which roads will be targeted. That is due to be determined by a public consultation where residents can have their say. No date has been publicly set yet for the consultation.
Responding to the concerns of the overview and scrutiny committee, council officers had written in a report: “The service has identified a number of material and operational changes that would make the delivery of winter maintenance more effective and efficient and to date have not identified any unintended consequences.
“Similarly as the design work to clarify the proposed new network progresses over the coming months there will be consultation with a range of organisations to ensure that any unintended consequences are identified and addressed. The service will keep the implementation of this proposal under review and provide a full risk assessment before winter 2020.”