Fears council roads budget will see gritting cut

Motorists face the risk of winter chaos because of a failure to manage the city’s “out of control” roads budget, it was claimed today.

Salt supplies contributed to the overspend. Picture: Jane Barlow

Councillors said services are at “material risk” if more control is not exerted over spending. According to figures revealed in a council report leaked to the Evening News, spending to keep roads gritted and clear in snowy weather has outstripped the budget for the past seven years, with work in 2012-13 costing £4 million – almost double the amount set aside, even though it was a “normal” winter.

An “urgent investigation” to discover why preparations cost so much is being demanded by councillors, who said that continued unsustainable spending could lead to fewer gritters and staff keeping roads clear.

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Increasing labour charges from the council’s own roads service have been a significant factor in driving up costs, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds in overtime payments to staff.

Records are in disarray, making it impossible to find out exactly how money is being spent. In one case, the council was billed for a gritter working 32 hours in a single day.

In the secret 2013 report on city roads services, transport chiefs are warned that “the number one risk for future winter maintenance activity was the control of costs”, and were told that warnings to put measures in place to prevent overspent “went unheeded”.

Winter spending has ballooned from £1.2m in 2006-7 to £3.7m in 2012-13, while the budget over the same period has only grown from £1.2m to £1.9m. Spending in 2012-13 – the last year covered by the report – cost £1.8m more than expected.

The worst snow in 50 years in 2010-11 prompted a review that saw “hundreds of hours” spent trying to work out where the additional money was going, but it failed to get to the bottom of runaway charges because the roads service’s four different records systems did not match up.

The report states: “Literally, hundreds of hours were expended on this task. Despite this effort, it proved impossible to marry the paper records for plant and vehicles with staff time sheets or the records for gritting routes completed.”

The chaotic bookkeeping is confirmed in the report, which made its own attempt to work how money was being spent. A comparison of paperwork found that in many cases “records conflict with others and may not be wholly accurate”. In one case, the review uncovered “remarkable” evidence of a gritting lorry “being charged out for 32 hours in one working day”.

The cost of winter road treatment was also pushed up in 2011 by a 16 per cent increase in labour costs at the council’s in-house roads service, with a similar rise in vehicle costs.

The report warns that, in reality, the overspend is millions of pounds higher than quoted in official figures because staff are paid their basic salaries, excluding overtime, from a different budget.

In relation to 2012-13, the report states: “If these figures were included then the total cost of winter treatment [in 2012-13] would be over £4m for what was a ‘normal’ winter.

“To put that into perspective, the council spent £7.07m on winter treatment, including the deployment of several hundred contractors, during the severe winter of 2010-11.”

Councillors said they were “astounded” that the winter budget was inadequate to meet the city’s needs, as they were only told about the cost overruns after signing off the latest transport budget.

Conservative shadow transport spokeswoman Councillor Joanna Mowat said services could be put at risk if the budget was not brought under control.

She said: “Councillors were astounded earlier this year to hear that at month two, the transport budget was under pressure because of winter weather. There was an extensive review into managing winter weather – assurances were given that lessons had been learnt and that the review would enable severe winter weather to be dealt with better and more efficiently.

“Now we hear that this has been underbudgeted and is regarded as a budget pressure – before there has been any winter weather.

“This matter needs urgent investigation so councillors can assess whether there are any further budget pressures and whether there is a coherent plan in place to deal with this out of control department.

“If the budget isn’t brought under control, the council’s ability to tackle severe weather could be at risk.”

Green Party transport spokesman Councillor Nigel Bagshaw said: “The apparent failure in managing the budget is very like to impact on the staff and equipment needed this year. The most shocking thing is that the lessons remained unlearned year after year.”

A council spokeswoman said that money had always been found to pay for necessary works, even during the harsh winter of 2010-11. She added that during the recent mild winter, council spending on road treatment came in under budget by £151,000 – the first time that has been achieved since 2006.

Transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds said other budgets could be tapped into in extreme conditions.

She said: “If we had a crystal ball and could accurately predict exactly what the weather conditions would be like over the winter months, we’d be able to gauge exactly how much we’re going to need to spend each year.

“Without that luxury, though, what we need to do is to put in place a budget which will help us tackle normal winter weather, while being aware that should we see a repeat of the kind of extreme conditions in 2010-11, we may well need to look to other budgets to cover costs.

“That said, there is no substitute for proper cost controls and we are determined to ensure every single penny of taxpayers’ money is properly spent.”