Lancashire residents will not be told in real-time whether individual roads have been gritted this winter - in case it raises their expectations or encourages them to sue.
A committee of county councillors suggested earlier this year that live gritting information should be published so that the public knew where salt had been spread and when.
Members of Lancashire County Council’s internal scrutiny committee were originally told that the information could not be made available because of new data protection rules - a stance which one councillor branded “odd”.
But legal advice reveals that the refusal was actually the result of concerns that the information could be used to challenge whether the authority had done its duty to keep the roads as clear as could be reasonably expected.
Lancashire County Council does publish the routes which it intends to treat on any given day on its website. These are presented by sub-region and categorised into what the authority classes as "priority" or "secondary" gritting routes - including a map which shows where they are.
The decision not to publish real-time routes is outlined in a document prepared for committee members - and seen by the Lancashire Post - by legal representatives including county hall’s senior lawyer from its litigation team.
It explains that the authority is obliged ”to ensure that safe passage along a highway maintainable at public expense is not endangered by snow or ice - but only so far as is reasonably practicable”.
The advice adds that the county council - which is responsible for the majority of non-motorway routes across Lancashire, except in Blackpool and Blackburn - uses details about which roads have been treated as a way of demonstrating that it has met the “reasonably practicable” test.
The document states: “It is arguable that making this [information] available...enables analysis and potentially increased or fraudulent claims.”
Concern is also raised that the publication of live gritting activity might “raise expectations” or lead to increased demands from the public, potentially requesting that particular roads should be visited by gritting lorries.
Internal scrutiny member Erica Lewis told the latest meeting of the group that the original data protection explanation for why the the routes had to stay secret should act as “a cautionary tale for people providing evidence to the committee not to make up legal positions”.
The county council’s gritting lorries are fitted with tracking technology which enables officers to monitor where they are at any given time. But the legal advice revealed that no other local authority provides the kind of real-time information which had been requested by councillors.
Some councils do publish the current location of a gritter, but not its total route. However, this was deemed to be of “limited use” and risked acting as a drain on resources because of the potential to increase enquiries.
A spokesman for the council said: "In July, advice was given that data the council has on tracking gritters cannot be disclosed because of GDPR, as it could be linked to an individual.
"Further legal advice was then given that a live feed produced for operational use should not be disclosed."
WILL MY ROAD BE GRITTED?
Advance information can be found at: https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/winter/gritting/
COLD AS ICE?
The forthcoming winter will be the first that Lancashire County Council has treated roads only once the temperature has dipped to half a degree above freezing.
In previous years, the authority’s gritting wagons have been mobilised whenever forecast temperatures have been predicted to fall below one degree celsius.
The change, which was approved by cabinet members in August, is expected to save £100,000 per year.
The authority said it was sometimes being too “pessimistic” about when temperatures might hit freezing point - and so risked sending out the gritters unnecessarily.
Speaking at the time, cabinet member for highways, Keith Iddon, rejected suggestions that the new system could result in roads being left untreated: “We’re not like the RAF, we don’t scramble when the bell rings. Once we know in the afternoon that the temperature is going to drop to half a degree, the vehicles will turn out to grit.”
And council leader Geoff Driver said the authority’s commitment to keeping the roads as safe as possible was demonstrated by the fact that its highways budget was “grossly overspent” in response to last year’s harsh winter.
Local authorities are responsible for maintaining all routes except motorways and trunk roads, which are the responsibility of the nationwide Highways Agency.
In Lancashire, that means the county council looks after all ordinary routes, with the exception of the A585 (between the M55 and Fleetwood) and roads in Blackpool and Blackburn, which are overseen by standalone councils in those areas.
The Local Government Association (LGA) says that it is not practical for councils to treat the entire highways network.
“It would cost hundreds of millions of extra pounds to grit all roads. Also, many roads are simply too narrow or too steep for gritting lorry to navigate,” the LGA says.
The organisation adds that councils cannot guarantee even treated routes will always be kept clear of snow and ice.
LENGTH OF LANCASHIRE’S ROAD NETWORK
Motorways - 108 miles
A-roads - 498 miles
All other roads - 4,372 miles
Source: Lancashire County Council (figures include routes in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen council areas)