LOCAL councils and the roads minister Conor Murphy remained at loggerheads last night over who should take responsibility for clearing walkways and footpaths of ice.
Despite public outrage at the persistently treacherous walking conditions for pedestrians, it appears an agreement between the Department of Regional Development (DRD) and the body representing the 26 local councils is still a long way off.
Both Conor Murphy and NILGA (NI Local Government Association) are putting the ball firmly in each other's court while the freeze continues and hospital A&E departments experience a 100 per rise in fall-related injuries.
To date, only a handful of councils – outside of Belfast and Londonderry – have begun clearing pavements of snow and ice and NILGA chair councillor Evelyne Robinson says there should be "no confusion" over who is responsible for the impasse.
"I do not think we can assume that this has been a one-off emergency any more, but the public really need to be made aware that clearing footpaths is neither the job or the responsibility of local councils – that is the job of roads service," the Ballymoney councillor said.
With only a brief respite forecast this weekend before the severe winter weather returns next week, Cllr Robinson said NILGA was still awaiting proposals for a formal and final solution to the crisis from Mr Murphy's department.
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Mr Murphy said the councils had been given the necessary indemnity assurances (protecting local authorities and their contractors against potential law suits from members of the public] required to let them get on with the work – but that the clearing of footpaths was "clearly a matter for the councils themselves".
Mr Murphy played down the councils' concerns over the cost of path clearing being passed on to ratepayers saying it wasn't a matter of resources.
"Belfast and Ballymena have been happy enough with it and I don't know why other councils can't come on board. If you have council staff who aren't able to do their ordinary work and are able to do this (path clearing), with a supply of materials from Roads Service, I'm not sure what the issue is."
Mr Murphy said DRD would be happy to "help and advise" the councils but said a strategy to deal with the issue, which was put forward in 2001, has been "tweaked and amended" since then and should acceptable to all of the councils.
He added: "The reality is that Roads Service have been putting out grit piles and salt boxes – nearly 40,000 of them – for years for people to clear paths and roads and there's no indemnity issues there.
"Nobody has been sued for scattering salt in the wrong fashion."
While the row rages on, the vast majority of streets and pavements in Northern Ireland look likely to remain a hazard.
Cllr Robinson said: "We have been working well with the Roads Service to resolve this, but we have not seen any formal proposals for a final solution of any kind to sort out the clearing of footpaths from the minister.
"Here in Ballymoney we have a small council compared with Belfast and Londonderry – we simply would not have the personnel available to carry out this massive job."
She added: "We must also bear in mind the great work that the Roads Service staff are doing in these terrible conditions, they deserve every praise."
In Limavady, the council issued a statement yesterday to clarify what they said was the "confusion" over the controversy, which has been raging since last winter's big freeze up.
"Limavady Borough Council has, since the extreme weather conditions arrived, followed its own policy approach of responding to requests from Roads Service in the clearing or treating of footpaths and pedestrian areas, within available resources of council," said the chief executive Liam Flanigan.
"The treating of footpaths has been in areas identified and agreed with Roads Service in the town centres of Limavady, Dungiven and Ballykelly. Council has received a draft agreement from DRD Roads Service regarding the issue and is in discussion with Roads Service over aspects of the proposed agreement", he added.
There was similar response from Ballymena, where the council revealed they had been operating a partnership agreement with Roads Service since 2004 to allow for the gritting or removal of snow and ice from pavements in the busy town centre.
"Council's involvement and assistance in this regard is restricted to the availability of manpower by for example the requirement to temporarily discontinue services such as grounds maintenance or street litter picking due to adverse weather conditions," said a council spokesperson.
"On this basis therefore and predicated on the fact that Roads Service supply all necessary materials such as salt or grit no additional costs of any significance arise for either council or its ratepayers," they added.
Omagh council reported a similar scenario.
"We have been involved in helping to clear footpaths in and around the town centre in partnership with Roads Service, but only when we have staff available," said John McCullagh from the council's technical services department.
In Magherafelt, the council said it had run out of salt for distribution with the salt mines refusing to sell them any more in the near future. operations manager Andrew Cassells said the Salt Mines were giving priority to Roads Service over councils and they were unable to distribute any more at present.
However he said there was still grit available for the general public to collect.
"We had been giving salt away free to members of the public but we ran out on Monday and we couldn't get any more because the salt mine at Kilroot wouldn't supply us any more," said Mr Cassells.
"It was because they were dealing with their priority customers of Roads Service here and roads services across the water."