We’ve been blessed with some good weather as we enter the autumn months, and unlike previous years the council’s winter maintenance teams haven’t needed to swing into serious action yet. Last year Lochaber councillors rejected the winter plans presented by officers, as inadequate and inconsistent with our area’s needs. That caused an enormous row with Inverness, but standing firm we forced changes in the council’s approach.
So, gritting lorries can start treating roads earlier when there is heavy icing or a sudden change in weather condition overnight. A potential 5am start means roads can be treated well ahead of people leaving for work or school. I’ve asked that the route around the peninsula is considered a priority for any 5am start because the longer distances people need to take to get to work means this will have a greater impact in rural areas rather than the town. Likewise, the Loch Leven routes should be a priority, as workers in the various villages head to Fort William for work. This is a significant change in policy, something I’ve campaigned for over the last three years. When I first raised this as an issue, pointing our other councils started gritting earlier, I was told it wasn’t possible because of working time regulations. Persistence paid off, as earlier this year officers admitted they got it wrong and it was possible to start earlier.
New arrangements will also see the Drimnin road treated earlier, which is good news for those using the school bus. I’ve raised the issue of most roads in Lochaber being categorised as “other”, so they receive no priority treatment, whereas rural areas of Caithness are crisscrossed with priority routes. There’s a suspicion that this categorisation has been used to protect winter funding in certain areas. Officers have been asked to reassess winter routes across the Highlands, to check funding is going to the right places. Another example of skewed resource allocation is the number of footway tractors used for clearing pavements of ice and snow. We have just two in Lochaber, whereas Caithness and Sutherland have eight each. One northern councillor even suggested to me that some tractors in their areas go unused, as there is no one to drive them during the winter. Yet Lochaber staff are forced to put together a business case for a quad bike to be used for this purpose. I’ve written to the Director of Community Services, asking him to intervene and move resources accordingly.