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Gritting firms told to be on permanent standby

WINTER MAINTENANCE contractors have been told that gritters must be kept on permanent standby to avoid a repeat of January's chaos on the M11, the Highways Agency admitted this week.

Failure of the Agency's term contractor Carillion to grit the road ahead of an 80mm snowfall led to hundreds of motorists being trapped in their cars for up to 24 hours (NCE 6 February).

This week Highways Agency chief executive Tim Matthews told a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that there were 'deficiencies' in Carillion's performance and that the contractor may yet face financial penalties.

Last week Carillion chief executive John McDonough said that his company was not at fault and that there was no likelihood of a financial penalty (News last week).

Matthews told the select committee that 'there were deficiencies in the way the contractor made judgements - particularly with timing. Some areas of their processes need to be addressed.'

An Agency spokesman confirmed that following an initial review of the M11 chaos, all winter maintenance contractors have been told that they must 'keep their equipment in a permanent state of readiness' and adopt gritting regimes that expect the worst from weather forecasts.

Matthews added that while the Agency's contracts do not allow for financial penalties for individual areas of poor performance, they may follow if the contractor does not make the improvements required.

'Sanctions are an accumulation of penalty points, ' said Matthews. 'There are defined areas where if they don't perform they will accumulate points, and if they accumulate enough they will be penalised.

'Where there is a procedural breakdown - as in this case - the first recourse is always to make improvements so that it doesn't happen again.

'But these improvements will have to be made or financial penalty will follow, ' said Matthews. 'If they continue to not remedy what is deficient they will have to pay for any inspection regime set up to monitor them.'

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