At times of budget restraint and shifting highways authority priorities just how important is it to maintain and control roadside verges? In Cumbria it is considered not just a safety matter, but an integral element in the policy to increase tourism and help the economy, writes Tony Richards.

“Over the years our budgets have largely kept pace with inflation, and this means that we are now taking a long and close look at how the reduced monies can be spent. But we also have a County Council that recognises that environmental care is a bit special,” says Kenny Brooks, the council's Highways and Transportation Business Manager.

“Budgets for roadside grass cutting are not ring fenced, but there is a priority factor that is possibly greater than that for more urban areas. We understand how important the environment of Cumbria is to the people who live here, the businesses they run and the hundreds of thousands of visitors we welcome every year.”

Cumbria's highways maintenance is under a Term Maintenance Contract with Amey LG, who sub-contract the work to specialists and agricultural contractors using four-wheel drive tractors and rearmounted flails. The arrangement works on several levels ' not least because these contracting relationships have been built up over several years and involve companies with not just detailed local knowledge, but a vested interest in getting the job done properly for long-term benefits.

Sub-contractors operate a dedicated service when they are required and are free to carry out other contracts, such as hedgecutting and grass mowing, when not. This means there is no clash of priorities and the Council and Amey are aware of when they will be operating, and where.

Safety is paramount so all contractors are trained under Amey's stringent health and safety policy. And keeping the roads open to traffic as much as possible is also important, so grass cutting involves no road or lane closures and is carried out by single driver/operators.

“The tractors are big and highly coloured, so they are easily noticed, and each has a large, well-lit, rear-mounted arrow as a moving traffic management device. We inform road users by signage that the work is going to be carried out some days before it starts and maintain this signage during the operation. Safety, for contractors, their drivers and the motoring public is paramount, but maintaining traffic flow is also important for safety and economic reasons. We find that a moving, single vehicle with its own traffic management signage is the suitable solution,” Brooks adds.

Cumbria has some inherently difficult geographical problems, which mean that highways verge cutting follows different chronological patterns throughout the county ' apart from the start date when, as with most highways authorities, there is a need to cut every roadside verge at almost the same time! The difficulty for Cumbria is that on the west it has a sea level plain, which rises at a remarkable rate in some areas to over 2,000 feet inland; and to the 'north and south there are the flat, environmentally important Solway Firth and Morecambe Bay. There is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) running the entire north/south of the county through the Lake District, and further SSSIs in Morecambe Bay, the Solway Firth and around the county.

Cumbria takes roadside verge maintenance seriously and has an established policy to maintain and protect the environment for the very wide range of flora and fauna over about 7,000 miles of roads. Depending on the weather ' and the dry March and April of this year slowed initial growth so the start date was delayed to mid-May ' the cutting season extends from Spring through to September.

All the county's roadside verges are assigned to a cutting time based on the plants they support, some being rare and in need of nurturing and protection, and all providing a root infrastructure that aids drainage as well as maintaining a firm, interlocking subsoil to prevent slippage. This allows cutting to take place after the flowering plants have set seed so the ecological balance is preserved, a programme that was originally designed in conjunction with English Nature in the 1990's.

Some verges are so rich in plant life that cuttings are removed 'prior to mowing to prevent them becoming nutrient enriched, which would lead to the more delicate flowering plants being replaced by stronger growing grasses and plants. The objective is to develop an ecological balance between protecting indigenous wildlife and ensuring safety for road users.

The initial task for all contractors is to cut a four-foot wide swath ' a single pass for the rear-mounted flail ' to improve visibility for drivers and allow room for pedestrians to step off the tarmac if necessary to allow vehicles to pass. At junctions and corners the cut swathe is widened to ensure maximum visibility. Throughout the season Line of Site Clearance remains a priority and is tackled as soon as a call is received, by either Council employees or contractors.

Later in the year the full width of some verges is cut to prevent woody plants, such as brambles, from becoming established and permanently changing the ecology of the verge.

A full width cut is done on a quarter of the county's verges every year, which means they are fully cut every four years ' and two years in the case of those areas where special attention is merited. Both sides of the same road undergoing a full width cut are never dealt with in the same year to ensure the habitat for small mammals and invertebrates associated with a particular section of road is retained at least on one side of the carriageway.

Cumbria County Council's cabinet member for highways, Councillor Tony Markley, has stated: “Our maintenance programme is aimed at getting the balance between ensuring we remove potential distractions or hazards for motorists and protecting the verges and the plants and animals they provide a habitat for.”

Grass cuttings are dealt with in one of two ways, depending on the quality of the soil and the plants growing there, Brooks adds. “If the soil is poor we will leave the cuttings to mulch and compost,but in some cases there are wildflowers and we try to maintain the quality of the soil by raking the grass cuttings up after a few days.

“At the moment, because the roadside verges are polluted by passing traffic and litter, grass cuttings are sent to landfill, but we are looking into ways of cleaning the cuttings so that they can be composted. It is a method that would not just result in usable compost, but would also reduce the cost of using landfill.

“We do not have a major problem with litter in Cumbria compared to some urban areas. Perhaps this is because it is such a beautiful area that visitors do not leave litter around, and it is a recognised fact that a litter-free environment psychologically puts people off dropping litter!”

Chemical growth restrictors are not used in Cumbria and weed killers minimised. Weed killers are not used on highways verges, but occasionally employed along drainage channels. The real problem, as with so many other authorities, is ragwort, and action has been taken to try and remove the plant from the highways ' but it is also found in privately-owned fields.

Whilst Cumbria's verge and environmental care is contracted out to Amey and then sub-contractors, the County Council retains a watching brief.

“We have specific guidance and will train contractors on what is required and how that can be best achieved, alongside Amey who have their own strict working practices. Highways inspectors know when and where grass verge cutting is taking place and will plan inspection visits some days afterwards to check on the quality of the work done. If we see any problems they will be raised at the frequent Progress Meetings we have with Amey as the main contractor.

“But the people of Cumbria are very proud of their county and they understand the importance of a clean environment to welcome visitors and tourists ' the economic lifeblood of the area. There are about 450,000 people living in the county and the way we see it is that this means 450,000 'Clerks of Works' checking on every element of our work. And they can be very quick on the telephone is something is not to their liking,” Brooks adds.

Cumbria has set the environmental standards bar very high, helped by that fact that ecological care has been a high priority for many years and the fact that there are few large urban conurbations and cities in the county. But to maintain these high standards requires a combination of initiatives.

The contractors “on the ground” are overseen in a practical sense by County Council employees, and by Amey on a day-to-day level. On an information level, Cumbria's communications team feeds frequent press releases on what is being done to improve the environment and maintains a council web site with an impressive and detailed section on the environment in general and grass cutting and roadside verges in particular.

In Cumbria it's not just a matter of doing the job properly ' it's also about telling people it's being done.