COUNCIL officials have denied claims they plan to cut back their winter road-gritting operations.
Labour councillors claim that Liberal Democrat-led Northumberland County Council is looking to make further savings by reducing the amount of salt and grit it puts on roads.
Some roads in the county have been left impassable in recent years, and the Labour councillors feared the alleged move – on top of 70 job losses already planned – would have a devastating impact on some communities.
Group leader Grant Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, said the authority was looking to reduce terms and conditions for existing staff and seek to make them re-apply for their jobs.
He also believes plans are afoot to have fewer operators working gritting machines.
Coun Davey said: “This is another disturbing twist in the ongoing and chaotic saga of this Liberal administration.
“It seems that front-line services are being targeted, and it’s clear that the administration has its priorities all wrong.
“Only 12 months ago, the council spent over £400,000 creating a state-of-the-art fish pass at Hedgeley, near Powburn, which is not a priority.
“Now we find that plans are well advanced to cut front-line workers and reduce gritting operations while keeping fingers crossed that the winter won’t be too severe.
“We can be assured, though, that while residents may struggle to get to work and services may be disrupted during the winter, the trout at Hedgeley will enjoy their fish pass.”
However, Andy Rutherford, head of highways and neighbourhood services at the council, denied Coun Davey’s claims, saying: “There are no planned changes or reductions to the gritting programme or any reductions to the gritting operators’ terms and conditions during 2012 onwards.
“While we have the same number of drivers for this year, we have had to move from a three to four-week shift rota due to single status and changes to drivers’ hours.
“To mitigate the impact of this change, we are recruiting local temporary staff, directly employed by the council, to provide addition resilience throughout the winter services period.
“There is no extra cost, but more drivers will be available to support the change to the delivery patterns.
“The council is ensuring it has sufficient cover to sustain its level of resilience along with a further four new gritter vehicles and two snow-blowers that we will be taking delivery of soon.
“This is well in advance of the winter service period to ensure we have even more robust resources at our disposal.”