PRESSURE is mounting on councillors to make changes to the gritting policy after a string of vehicles slid off the roads in icy conditions including a school bus on the Hushinish Road in Harris.
Individual councillors, the MSP and the Stornoway Gazette have been inundated with complaints from island residents, community councils and parents forums on this issue.
There is particular concern about the lack of priority given to some roads on which school buses travel in the morning and for access to early morning ferries.
The Member Officer Working Group (MOWG), who monitor the gritting policy will meet next week (Monday December 17th) and could make a recommendation to the Transportation Committee that the policy is changed.
However that committee does not meet again until February when the worst of the winter weather could have passed.
Leader of the Comhairle Angus Campbell said this week that there was discretion for Comhairle officers to make day to day operational changes.
When asked if the council would consider reviewing the policy at their meeting of the full council on December 18th, he said: “In theory this could come up in December but is much more likely to be in February. Changing the whole policy is a big step because of contractual issues etc but it should be noted that within the policy there is delegation to officers to make day to day operational changes in response to weather etc.”
It is understood that a change to the policy would require two thirds of support from councillors and with that in mind, the Gazette contacted all local members to ask for their views on a possible review.
Cllr Cudig Macleod of Sgire Uige agus an Ceann a Tuath nan Loch commented: “This policy has to be revisited and changes carried out, this is a point raised by myself at the Transportation Committee last week.”
Cllr Charlie Nicolson of Stornoway South ward said: “I would be happy for a review to take place to look at any issues or concerns from the community.”
Cllr Iain Mackenzie of Stornoway North echoed those thoughts and Cllr Rae Mackenzie of Stornoway South ward said he fully agreed that a review should be carried out not only for the roads but also for pavements.
Harris and South Lochs councillors, Catherine MacDonald, Philip Maclean and DJ Macrae have received a large number of representations on this issue and are supportive of a review of the policy. In their ward a school bus slipped off the road and both North Harris and South Harris Community Councils have written to the Comhairle about the gritting situation.
Cllr Macdonald is on the Member Officer Working Group and will be raising this issue at the meeting next week.
Sgire an Rubha councillors met with Comhairle officials on Monday to discuss their area’s specific issues and Cllr Zena Stewart who is a member of the Working Group said these would be raised at their meeting next week.
An Taobh Siar agus Nis councillor Kenneth Macleod said he would be supportive of a review while Cllr Kenneth Murray of the same ward commented: “When the group meet it is important that we benchmark what we do with the other Councils in the North and West of Scotland and this should assist in our decision making process. We also must find out the advice that is given out by other Authorities in the event of snow and black ice and see if we can learn and adopt best practice.”
Loch a Tuath’s Cllr Catriona Stewart said the concerns would be discussed by the Working Group.
North Uist councillor Neil Beaton said he believed there would be a review of the policy and Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay and South Uist Cllr Donald Manford questioned the transparency of the monitoring process.
He said: “Road safety is all too often at the forefront of people’s concern, and it is important not only that the council is doing everything reasonably possible to keep all road users safe but that it is seen to be doing so and that public confidence is maintained.”
Cllr Manford said only those specifically invited could attend the working group monitoring winter maintenance and that there should be more transparency.
Clarifying the Comhairle’s position on who can or can not attend working group meetings, Chief Executive Malcolm Burr said: “The position regarding the attendance at Member/Officer Working Groups (MOWG) is as follows: All Elected Members of the Comhairle receive notification of the Agendas and Reports for all MOWGs and, if any Member wishes to make representations to a MOWG meeting, or to attend, our long-established practice is that the Member seeks an invitation, which is always issued, either from the Chairman of the Group, Lesley MacDonald, Head of Executive Office, or myself.”
The Working Group will next week consider the current situation and could make a recommendation to be considered by councillors.
The gritting policy was a hot topic on the Gazette’s Facebook page this week where comments can be viewed or made at www.facebook.com/StornowayGazette
Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan has also written to the council about the gritting policy.
He said: “This follows icy conditions that I am aware has led to a number of parents having difficulty getting their children to school, as well as sending various cars off the road, not to mention the difficulty that many older people have just going outside.”
He added: “Given the huge number of roads, many of them very isolated, in the islands, I am aware it would be an extremely difficult task to grit all of these roads to the satisfaction of everyone. However as this is a question which a number of people have raised with me with safety in mind, I feel it is a legitimate concern.
“I have therefore written to the Comhairle’s Chief Executive seeking detail of their plans in this area for the winter, and to ask if they intend to review any areas of provision.”