Plummeting temperatures and snowfall threaten to bring the region’s roads to a standstill. Transport Correspondent Patrice John looks at how future cuts in funding could bring traffic to a grinding halt.
It was the heaviest snow for more than a decade and it fell in February 2009.
The extreme weather played havoc with roads leaving them cracked, full of potholes and desperately in need of repair.
Local authorities had to find extra funds for repairs but union leaders are forecasting that looming cuts could hit the 2010/2011 budgets and create serious consequences in winters to come.
Figures released by the Local Government Association reveal local authorities have faced a £4 billion drop in income during the past two years and it seems inevitable council services will suffer and job cuts will follow.
T&G regional secretary Gerard Coyne said councils will not be able to invest the same amounts of money on road maintenance in the future.
Many are refusing to rule out cuts to road maintenance.
Mr Coyne said: “Local authorities are facing a very serious situation with funding and despite what anyone says, that has got to impact frontline services and I can’t see how roads will be exempt.
“The roads must be properly maintained otherwise when cold weather hits it makes things a lot worse.
“When we think back to earlier this year, there were times when we got very close to running out of gritting salt in some parts of the region.
“This also happened before there was any talk of budget constraints, so if funds are cut we will all suffer.
“Councils have said there won’t be cuts to frontline services, but they’ve been cutting from backroom services for years. It makes me wonder how much fat is left on the bone and I believe there’s not much.”
The bad weather last February left Birmingham City Council with a £5million bill to restore and repair roads which the council has worked at throughout the year.
But the city has found another way to secure the future of roads in Birmingham – a private finance initiative by public services company Amey.
The £2.7 billion contract, which will be formalised this month, will last for 25 years and allow massive investment in Birmingham’s road structure.
But Mr Coyne said Birmingham could still face problems if other local authorities suffer budgets cuts which impact the health of their roads.
“Birmingham is not an island,” he said. “It is at the heart of a wider network of roads that link the region. If other local authorities have to cut budgets, and this impacts on the state of their roads, it won’t matter how good Birmingham’s PFI deal is, it won’t be immune from problems.
“People travel from around the region and country to get into Birmingham and so the whole network has to be working well.”
But local authorities remain confident about this winter and their current budgets for highways maintenance.
Birmingham City Council’s current capital budget for Highways and Transportation is £46.3 million.
Experts believe this, coupled with the PFI project, will bring vast improvements to the city’s road network. When looking at the state of roads this winter, authorities are doing their best to prepare for snowfall and ice.
A Birmingham City Council spokesman said: “Last winter was extremely challenging for the Winter Maintenance Service and there was also a national rock salt shortage during early February 2009.
“While this did create problems for all local authorities including ourselves, at no point did Birmingham City Council either reduce or suspend its gritting treatment.”
Sandwell Council has earmarked £11 million for highways maintenance but refused to rule out future cuts.
Coun Mahboob Hussain said: “Next year’s budget has not been set yet but, although there is pressure on all local authority budgets, Sandwell is working hard to protect all frontline services so no reduction is anticipated at this stage.”
A Solihull Council spokeswoman confirmed that the current budget for highways maintenance was £1.6 million. She said: “There are no plans to change this but that is not to say a change will not happen.”
A Walsall Council spokeswoman said the current budget is £5.7million for roads, but it was too early in the budget process to say if that will change.