Cash-strapped ratepayers could be left to foot a massive bill for roadside grass cutting across the new Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council area.
The local authority has already taken on the cost of maintaining dozens of grass verges and roundabouts - work previously paid for by the Department for Regional Development. But now, due to departmental cutbacks and increasing public dissatisfaction with overgrown verges and unsightly roundabouts, the council is coming under increasing pressure to take on more roadside maintenance - even on land it doesn’t currently have responsibility for.
At Monday night’s Operations Committee meeting, members were reminded that TransportNI (formerly Roads Service) has ended its annual grass cutting agreement with the council due to budget cuts.
Councillors were informed that a total of 46 locations have been approved for council to undertake grass cutting, with a timetable in place for the works to get under way. However, several members raised serious concerns about the potential cost implications to local ratepayers of taking on any further grass cutting work.
Alderman Adrian Cochrane-Watson said ratepayers would look to the council to take on additional grass cutting, but warned that such a move could cost “a lot of money.”
Asking for a spreadsheet to be compiled on costings to the council for any additional grass cutting, Ald. Watson added: “These are huge decisions to take and if that is the case then we need to know the financial burden that will be put on us.”
Councillor Neil Kelly said he was pleased to see a timetable in place for some work to begin but added: “I think the public have to be patient and give us time to sort this out.”
Councillor Mark Cosgrove said it was yet another service “winging its way through to local government”.
“It is further devolved powers but not coming with the requisite budget; this is coming with no budget,” Cllr Cosgrove said.
He added: “This is a fundamental service that people expect of their local council. It goes unnoticed until it is not being done.”
Cllr Cosgrove added that council needed to look at the matter in “greater detail”.
Councillor Phillip Brett said he felt that the view from central government was that “local government will pick up the tab.”
“Our ratepayers are very fortunate that we struck such good rates,” the DUP man said.
He added: “Now we are going to have to take on key services from central government and our residents, the ratepayers and rates are going to take on the costs.”
Cllr Brett also warned of the dangers of taking on any additional grass cutting.
“This is a very, very costly situation if we are getting into the business of cutting every grass verge and every single housing development,” he said, calling for more information on costings.
Councillors Michael Goodman and Billy Webb also raised concerns about cutting grass in private housing developments where householders pay towards a management fee.
Geraldine Girvan, Director of Operations at Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council, said the issue stemmed from budget cuts.
“We are looking at what council can do in relation to that,” Ms Girvan said.
She added that she would bring costings forward to the committee at a later date.
Meanwhile, Alderman John Smyth, Chair of the Operations Committee, said the appearance of the borough’s towns, villages and rural areas remains a top priority for council.
“Over recent months however, some significant changes have meant that the usual high standards are taking longer to achieve,” Ald. Smyth said.
He continued: “Recent changes to Traffic Regulations have resulted in grass cutting and planting taking longer, as council staff work to ensure compliance with the new regulations.
“We are very conscious that both our residents and visitors appreciate and indeed compliment us on the appearance of the borough and the award winning standards achieved by the parks team and we are working to ensure that the majority of the verges and roundabouts under council’s responsibility will be cut and planted by mid-July.”
Ald. Smyth added: “The issue is made worse because TransportNI confirmed that it is no longer able to continue with grass cutting contracts delivered through councils and contractors - due to recent budget cuts. This is a significant decision which also impacts on the borough and has resulted in many complaints.
“The council has agreed that staff should continue with grass cutting previously undertaken through the TransportNI contract and for the remainder of verges it will be doing what it can in the short term.”
It’s understood the bill for roadside maintenance could run to hundreds of thousands of pounds, sparking cross-party concerns about the potential financial burden on local ratepayers.
The Operations Committee delayed a decision on approving any additional grass cutting work, instead asking officers to bring back a report about the options open to the council and details of the associated costs.
“We need to know more about the costs involved before taking any decisions on this issue,” Cllr Webb told the Times.
“Obviously the department is getting rid of some of its budgetary responsibilities onto the poor ratepayer without transferring over a budget for carrying out the work. I think it is grossly unfair for ratepayers to be subsidising a department that can’t work within its budget,” he added.
Cllr Goodman said that all elected representatives have been getting calls from disgruntled members of the public requesting that grass cutting is carried out at different sites across the borough. But stressing that many of the locations where maintenance is required aren’t the council’s responsibility, he said the local authority needs to look closely at what it can do, and the associated costs before committing to taking on any further work.
“The concern is that we could be left to foot the bill for the failings of other organisations,” he said. “Antrim and Newtownabbey is a big area with miles of roads so we could potentially be talking about a huge sum.”
Cllr Goodman said that councillors need a clear picture of what can be done and how much it will cost, stressing that any decision “must not put too much of a burden on the ratepayers.”
Responding to concerns about the lack of roadside grass cutting across the borough, a DRD spokeswoman said: “The Department is currently experiencing significant pressures on its resource budget which funds many of its maintenance activities and this situation is likely to continue for some time. As a result, a review of its maintenance activities has been carried out to identify where savings can be made.
“Grass cutting is one of the functions where reductions in service levels are required to achieve the required savings.
“The department will be carrying out one full cut of all grassed areas under its maintenance control, with additional cuts to sightlines carried out as resources permit.”