Bracing the cold

Spring has sprung but the cold winter is still in fresh memory. Councillor David Sparks, Chair of the LGA Transport and Regeneration board, looks at the difficult task local authorities faced during the snowy season

In January, the transport industry found itself at the heart of one of the biggest news stories so far this year. The coldest winter weather in 30 years was gripping Britain. From Christmas Eve, when motorists struggled through ice and snow to get to family and friends in time for the festive season, to when the decorations were safely packed away in mid-January, freezing weather dominated the headlines.

In some areas, councils were out gritting local roads and pavements for three weeks solid. Despite their Herculean efforts, the work of councils came in for criticism from a small but vocal minority. However, councils and most organisations in the transport industry, including the Highways Agency, the Department for Transport and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, worked together to ensure that the country kept moving.

In its report published in July 2009, the UK Road Liaison Group recommended that councils should hold a minimum supply of six days of salt for gritting the roads. At the time, the Local Government Association said that it must be up to individual councils, with knowledge of their area and its past winter weather, to decide how much it is wise to spend on stockpiling grit. After all, what is good for Northumberland may not be right for Cornwall. The LGA stands by this statement and despite councils proving their preparedness, as days of gritting turned into weeks with priority routes still being kept clear, the AA repeatedly took the opportunity to castigate councils for being ill-prepared.

As the freezing temperatures and snow continued into January, the government took the decision to convene Salt Cell, a group comprising the Department for Transport, the Local Government Association, the Highways Agency and the devolved administrations, to coordinate the delivery and sharing of salt supplies. Councils fed information about their existing stockpiles of salt to the government, which then advised suppliers where to direct their lorries. Councils showed to be extremely cooperative as they worked with the government and each other to share salt. Effective mutual aid, where councils lent salt to other councils and borrowed from or lent to the Highways Agency, played a vital role in ensuring key roads were kept open.

This year’s ‘coldest winter in 30 years’ followed on quickly from 2009’s ‘worst winter in 20 years’, when a similar situation saw council grit supplies run low. Following the 2009 experience, the LGA commissioned a report into the lessons that could be learned to find ways of doing things better. While it did not back calls for an arbitrary target for the days worth of salt councils should stockpile, the LGA’s Weathering the Storm report, published in October last year, warned that there are serious problems with the UK supply chain for road salt. Almost all of the country’s road salt comes from just two companies, Salt Union and Cleveland Potash. Regardless of the size of councils’ stockpiles of salt, in the face of weeks of continual freezing weather, those supplies will run low unless they can be replenished adequately and in a timely fashion.

The LGA’s concerns were born out as a breakdown at Salt Union’s mine in Cheshire brought operations to a standstill, meaning three days of valuable mining time was lost. Problems at Cleveland Potash also disrupted supply. The mountains of salt at the sites of Britain’s two main suppliers quickly turned into molehills, not a criticism of the suppliers per se, but rather a criticism of the market that allows a virtual duopoly to exist. It is crucial that any exercise to learn the lessons from this winter’s experience looks closely at the issue of supplies.

The process of learning lessons from this years’ response to the freezing weather has already begun. In early March, Northamptonshire County Council held a grit summit which brought together the emergency services, schools, social services, the health service, emergency planners; and national voices from Salt Union, the National Farmers Union and the Road Haulage Association to share their experiences. In late March, the LGA co-hosted a Snow Summit with Essex County Council to discuss with central government, the AA, the National Union of Headteachers and the Institute of Directors how things can be done better next year. The LGA will continue this process over the coming months.

The aftermath
Of course, after the freezing temperatures, come the repairs. While January was the month for roads covered in slushy snow, February and March were the months of roads covered in potholes. The exceptional winter, with unusually heavy snowfalls and roads continually thawing then re-freezing, has had a chilling effect on road surfaces across the country.

Local authorities have long made the case for extra investment in road maintenance. The LGA estimates that there is a historic under-funding by the government of £8.5billion for councils’ road maintenance budgets.
Councils are working tirelessly to fix potholes. Where possible, they are spending extra cash on repairing the roads and increasing numbers of road maintenance staff. The LGA asked the DfT to create an emergency fund of £100million so councils could bid for extra money to fix potholes and in the budget, the Chancellor obliged. In the short term, councils will fix the worst potholes as quickly as possible. But in the medium term, they are going to have to make tough decisions about spending on roads in order to get to grips with the problems caused by this winter. Whereas before, a council may have been planning to replace an entire road surface, they could now be looking to spend that money patching up potholes instead, a situation which may be storing up problems in the years ahead.

From maintaining bin collections to ensuring the delivery of meals on wheels, the severe winter weather presented councils with numerous challenges, but none were bigger than ensuring key local roads were kept clear. As British summer time commenced and yet more snow was forecast, local authorities’ were bracing themselves for the cold winds of budget cuts. Combine this with predictions of more volatile weather resulting from global warming and it creates a situation where it is essential that councils learn the lessons from the last two winters. For its part, the LGA is committed to ensuring this happens.

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