A Stormont department has said that upcoming reductions in public grass verge cutting is down to a drive towards “biodiversity,” as well as problems with budgets and staffing.
At a recent special Belfast City Council committee meeting, representatives from the Roads Division at the Stormont Department for Infrastructure told elected members at City Hall that budget cuts would impact public services, and added it was struggling to find staff to fill roles.
The Stormont Executive is responsible for Northern Ireland roads, pavements and other street infrastructure such as lamp-posts, as well as the public grass verges surrounding them.
Councillors at Belfast City Hall are regularly heard calling for these powers to be devolved to the local authority level, and several motions have been passed by Belfast Council in recent years urging the Department for Infrastructure to transfer these powers.
The DfI representative told councillors at the special City Growth and Regeneration Committee autumn roads report that among the services to be affected would be grass verge cutting.
A manager from the Roads Division told the chamber:
“In relation to grass cutting, it is carried out for road safety reasons rather than amenity purposes. The department’s grass cutting policy has evolved to focus on protecting wildlife and promoting biodiversity while managing roadside verges.
“A single swathe will be cut on the verges of the strategic road network twice per year. Other areas that are needed for safety purposes such as junctions will be cut at least twice a year with additional cuts as and when needed.
“A similar approach will be introduced on heavily used rural roads, and at lighter traffic rural roads one cut will be carried out late in the growing season. It is likely this approach will make the roadside verges look perhaps less manicured than they had previously.”
He said to councillors: “When your constituents raise this issue, we would ask you just to advise them of the change in policy, which is going in the direction of biodiversity.”
The Stormont representative added: “As a Roads engineer this is not the sort of report that I would look forward to delivering, or want to deliver, and as councillors it is not one you want to hear either. So I apologise from the outset.”
He said: “The road expenditure has consistently been below the required levels to maintain the existing infrastructure. By way of example, improvements to expand the lifespan of the roads through essential maintenance over the last decade has totalled almost one billion underinvestment.
“The consequence of this underinvestment is an asset that deteriorates more quickly and results in more costly interventions. We recognise it would be better to maintain the asset well, in a timely fashion, but regrettably, we currently do not have the funding to be able to do this.
“The secretary of state provided all Northern Ireland departments with budgets for 2023/24. The department (for Infrastructure) is managing a 14 percent reduction in its 23/24 resource allocation in comparison to last year, on a like for like basis, despite every attempt to reduce spend across the department.”
He said: “For many years the department has been operating within constraining resource budgets, with the opening baseline allocation insufficient to properly manage public assets for which we are responsible, and it is no different this year. As a result, we have historically relied on in-year funding to deliver many of our services.
“Additional to these long term pressures, are the unprecedented short term increases in energy and inflation prices. In the face of such acute budgetary pressure, the department is currently continuing with a limited service for routine maintenance services, such as road defects and grass cutting.”
He said: “In addition to the funding pressures, the Division is facing significant staffing pressures which are impacting on our ability to deliver key services. As an organisation as a whole, DfI Roads has 450 vacancies, of which only 38 are funded.”