Gritting fight turns ugly as Somerset council refutes claims it sold road gritters and sacked drivers
Somerset County Council has refuted claims from local Liberal Democrats that it has sold its road gritters and sacked gritter drivers amid a scathing war of words.
The Conservative-led council recently announced a sensational U-turn on cuts to local gritting services, after “scenes of carnage” and a large number of crashes were reported on roads across the county during an icy snap last month.
However, this decision sparked a biting to-and-fro tussle between the two largest political parties in the county.
Not long after the decision to overturn the gritting cuts, Somerset Lib Dems claimed the council had “sacked 17 gritter drivers and sold their road gritters” in a press release.
These claims were slammed as “barefaced lies” by local Tories, who, in a press release of their own, said the Lib Dems had created “significant confusion among the public”.
Somerset Conservatives went on to describe a “humiliating climbdown” for Lib Dem parliamentary prospective for Yeovil, Mick Clark, who they allege deleted an online post regarding the claims.
A council spokesman then stated the council has maintained the same gritter fleet size, and that it does not employ gritter drivers, but multi-skilled staff who drive the gritters in winter when ice is expected.
But Liberal Democrat Mr Clark hit back, maintaining that “the opposition group have been informed that 17 members of staff would be laid off”, and accused the council of “failing Somerset” with £45 million of “painful cuts”.
Finally, a spokesman for the council “made clear” that “no drivers, either employed, subcontracted or agency, lost their jobs as a result of the reductions in winter service”.
Gritting-gate – A timeline of events
Friday, February 8 – SCC’s sensational U-turn on gritting cuts
Senior Somerset politicians pledge to spend £200,000 on gritting the county’s roads “thanks to better than expected finalised funding for 2019/20”.
Somerset County Council’s cabinet backs plans to reverse the £120,000 of cuts which were approved last September following scenes of “carnage” on roads around the county.
However, the funding came too late for this winter as the council “cannot ramp up operations again in such a short period of time”.
Monday, February 11 – Lib Dems claim SCC ‘sold gritters and sacked drivers’
Local Liberal Democrats claim Somerset County Council has “sacked seventeen gritter drivers and sold their road gritters”.
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group in county, Jane Lock, said: “The Conservatives running the county council are clearly out of touch with the real world. We all experienced the problems in recent weeks with just a brief cold snap.
“Rather than taking the opportunity to hold their hands up, say they had got it wrong, Somerset Conservatives are instead pushing ahead and making the problem worse by sacking seventeen hard working drivers”.
Mick Clark, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Yeovil, said: “This council refused to raise council tax for almost a decade, then complained it now hasn’t got the funds to deliver essential services. If these were company directors, they would be struck off and banned from running future businesses”
“After cuts to every aspect of county services, the only thing this Conservative run council has achieved is to clearly demonstrate they have no gritters, no drivers and no clue about delivering services responsibly”
Wednesday, Febraury 13 – Gritting claims slammed as ‘barefaced lies’ by Tories
Somerset Conservatives claim Mick Clark “was forced into a humiliating climb down after he falsely alleged that Somerset County Council had sacked seventeen gritter drivers and sold their gritters”.
The Tories said that the Lib Dem backed down from his “outlandish claims” by removing an online post.
Conservative group leader, David Fothergill, said: “I find it particularly sad when the Lib Dems behave in such an irresponsible manner and cause significant confusion amongst the public. We should all try to be absolutely clear about the facts.”
A spokesman for Yeovil Conservatives said: “It’s absolutely outrageous that a prospective parliamentary candidate can peddle this type of fabrication without any consequences. It’s clear that Mick Clark is not fit for public office if the only way he can garner support is with a barefaced lie. Mick Clark and Jane Lock need to consider their positions and apologise for treating the public with contempt.”
Thursday, February 14 – SCC states its position
Cllr John Woodman, Somerset County Council’s cabinet member for highways, said: “We have not sold any of our current gritter fleet and currently have no plans to do so. We do not employ designated gritter drivers. Through our contractor we have a flexible workforce who are multi-skilled and able work on a range of highways activities, which will include driving gritters in winter when ice is expected.”
A council spokesman also provided the following breakdown of its gritter fleet;
2017/2018 – Gritter fleet size: 23
2017/2018 – 7 new gritters purchased (Sept/Nov 2017)
2017/2018 – 7 old gritters sold (Jan/Mar 2018)
2018/2019 – 3 new gritters purchased (July/Sept 2018)
2019/2020 – 3 old gritters to be sold (April/May 2019)
2019/2020 – Gritter fleet size: 23
Friday, February 15 – Lib Dems hit back
Mick Clark hits back, claiming the Conservatives running Somerset County Council are “hiding behind the technicalities of employment relationships”, and refuted claims of a “dramatic climbdown”.
He said: “During a recent briefing by council officers, the opposition group have been informed that 17 members of staff would be laid off, leaving too few to reinstate gritting services. The fact that these individuals are sub-contracted, rather than directly employed, means very little to those facing unemployment and communities with reduced services. A further briefing by officers revealed that a number of gritting machines would be going on sale at auction.
“I would disagree that removing a social media post would constitute a “dramatic climbdown”. I removed a solitary post in the interests of ensuring accuracy of information regarding the complex and insecure way in which these vital and valued members of the county team are employed.”
He added: “Thousands of people, unhappy at the cuts to gritting services, and the loss of jobs and equipment have already signed our petition to reverse the grit cuts, by post and at www.yeovil-libdems.org.uk/gritcuts.”
“For many in Somerset, it will be clear that the Tories running the County Council are more concerned with using the terms of expensive and complicated contracting arrangements to hide their short comings, rather than recognising how they have failed Somerset with £45 million in painful cuts to vital public services over the past two years.”
Tuesday, February 19 – SCC ‘makes clear’ its position on gritter drivers
A spokesman for SCC said in a statement that the council “wants to be clear about our position on gritter drivers”.
They said: “No drivers, either employed, subcontracted or agency, lost their jobs as a result of the reductions in winter service.
“Our contractor Skanska continues to recruit and in 2018 increased their workforce by 12% – and is expecting similar levels of recruitment in 2019.”