THE Highways Agency was criticised last night for failing to keep records relating to its road-gritting targets.

The agency, and several North-East councils, was criticised at the end of January for failing to grit a number of key roads during two days of heavy snow.

Many motorists were stranded for hours on impassable roads, with Teesside among the areas in the region worst affected.

A new National Audit Office (NAO) report into the work of the agency, which is responsible for maintaining motorways and trunk roads, has now said it cannot verify its road-gritting targets because it does not keep full records.

Under its Road Users Charter, the agency must salt the roads within three hours of instruction to do so on 99 per cent of occasions.

In its report, the NAO also said the initial agency investigation into the events of January 30-31 had indicated that temperatures dropped much quicker than forecast, giving maintenance staff less time to mobilise gritting vehicles. A breakdown in communications between gritting vehicles and their control centres made things worse.

During the heavy snowfalls the Highways Agency said it had 35 gritters working on one day in the North-East.

But it said that "Arctic-type" dry powdery snow had prevented them from doing their job properly.

The NAO said that the agency was now looking at any changes in procedures that might be necessary and reminded its staff that they ''must err on the side of caution when marginal weather forecasts are received".

The gritting situation was made worse by a number of councils cutting back on their winter maintenance budgets for A and B roads.

Durham County Council cut its budget by £400,000 this year to meet a social services shortfall and said it would be able to grit fewer roads.