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Councils ordered to cut back on gritting as national salt shortage bites

Ministers have ordered highway authorities across the UK to cut their salt usage by 25% to manage the pressure on salt supplies caused by the most prolonged spell of cold weather in the UK in almost 30 years. 

The reduction will apply equally to the Highways Agency and local councils. 

For councils this will mean restricting treatment to published priority networks only and in many cases reducing treatment to a smaller resilience network should further reduction of networks treated become necessary. Council will also have to reducing the rate of salt use in treatments and use grit only on minor roads and where salt has already settled.

For the Highways Agency this means motorway hard shoulders will no longer be gritted.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has enacted ‘Salt Cell’ to instruct salt companies on how to prioritise their deliveries. Salt Cell is convened by the DfT and it includes the Cabinet Office, the LGA, the Highways Agency and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. It will assess which areas of the country need salt the most and make recommendations to the suppliers accordingly.

It is then for councils to decide how best to implement these reductions in their own areas. Councils are still gritting pavements, but are now concentrating on the most important areas such as outside hospitals, shopping centres, schools and doctor’s surgeries.

“The distribution of salt is of particular concern given that there are only three principal suppliers in the UK. We are working with them to maximise production”

Lord Adonis

Transport secretary Lord Adonis said: “The overall position is that we are into the fourth day of the second bout of extremely cold weather and forecasts suggest it is likely that there will be a further week or more at sub zero temperatures.

“The distribution of salt is of particular concern given that there are only three principal suppliers in the UK. We are working with them to maximise production,” he said.

Most of the UK’s salt is mined in Cheshire by Salt Union. Cleveland Potash, in Middlesbrough, produces salt as a by-product of its main operations.

The Highways Agency will take delivery of substantial additional imports of salt starting later this month, which is the earliest they can arrive.

“The Government has taken the lead, through the Salt Cell, in ensuring that the delivery of salt goes to where it is needed most,” said Adonis. “The Salt Cell met this morning (Friday) to agree the latest distribution. Mutual aid arrangements have also been in operation between local authorities and with the Highways Agency. These will need to continue.

“Highways Authorities across the country have a shared interest in making salt supplies go as far as possible. Given the prolonged intensity of the severe weather, I have today directed the Highways Agency to manage their use of salt in order to keep its network open while reducing their daily use by 25%. This for example, means no longer spreading salt on the hard shoulder.

“Similarly I have also asked the LGA, on behalf of local authorities across England, and the Mayor of London, to reduce their daily use by 25%. They have agreed to do so, recognising the importance of mutual support to keep Britain moving safely.  To achieve this they will need to consider what prioritisation is appropriate for their network, reflecting local needs, including strategic routes and key public services.”

Adonis added that the government’s emergency committee COBR met Friday afternoon under prime minister Gordon Brown and that minsters remain in “constant contact” with local authority leaders and those responsible for key public services.

LGA transport board chairman David Sparks said councils would continue to work “tirelessly” to keep roads clear, people safe and essential services working.

“As a result of the Government’s recommendations, councils will focus more on gritting the most important roads so hospitals stay open and essential supplies of food and fuel get through. The safety of the travelling public is vitally important and this will be reflected in the measures councils take to conserve salt.

“Where stocks are low, councils will step up even further their efforts to share salt with neighbouring authorities. Ministers have decided that reducing salt use by a quarter will ensure that all councils have enough salt to last, providing they prioritise appropriately.”

Many councils are unhappy at the way salt is being commandeered. Harrow Council in London blamed its decision to close almost half of all schools in its borough on the move. “The reality is that Harrow’s limited salt stocks mean the borough has to keep to gritting 129km of roads which are essential to keep traffic moving in Harrow. Nearly all schools are on a secondary gritting route which limited stocks simply do not allow us to grit,” it said in a statement.

“Harrow pre-ordered an extra 2,000t of salt for this month but our supplier has been unable to provide it. Limited supplies are therefore not a problem of Harrow Council’s making.”

Do councils have enough salt in stock?

Prime minister Gordon Brown, transport secretary Lord Adonis and business secretary Lord Mandelson have all said that there are sufficient supplies across the country to deal with the cold weather and the LGA said it had no reason to believe otherwise.

At prime minister’s questions this week, Brown told the Commons: “salt supplies have been built up as a result of what we discovered and did last year. At the same time, I can announce that there will be greater co-ordination of the distribution of salt, so that those areas that need that salt will not be denied it.

The LGA said councils learned the lessons from February last year and stockpiled more salt – despite forecasts of a mild winter.

It added that in making these decisions about how much to stockpile, councils have to take into account the cost of the grit itself, and also the storage costs, maintaining the warehouses and security. The Met Office originally predicted that there was only a one in seven chance of a cold winter in 2009/10.

But after the longest cold snap for 30 years and continued bad weather for 21 days, it is not surprising that some parts of the country have run their stocks down. Many councils have concerns about supply.

With the Met Office forecasting bad weather for the next fortnight, there will continue to be exceptional demands on salt supply for the foreseeable future.

Last month, the government recommended that councils should have enough salt to last six days of cold weather. With the cold snap is into its third week and with no councils yet run out of salt completely, it would seem that this requirement was met by local authorities.

Bad weather action

An LGA analysis of council gritting activity over the last three weeks, since the cold snap started, has estimated that the equivalent of 2.7 million km of road have been gritted by council gritting teams using 200,000t of salt.

Councils have spent £12.2M treating the roads with 4,000 council staff involved in gritting operations around the clock. In 2007/08 the winter maintenance budget for councils, which includes gritting and salting, was £185M.

County councils, unitary authorities, London boroughs and Metropolitan authorities are responsible for road gritting. They make up 150 out of 353 councils in England. District councils do not grit the roads.

Continued chaos

The UK is in the grip of its longest spell of freezing weather for almost 30 years. Extreme or severe weather warnings are still in place across the country for both snow and ice. 

The Met Office is forecasting recurring snowfalls and subzero temperatures for at least the next fortnight.

Parts of the UK were colder than many of Europe’s famous ski resorts on Friday as temperatures plummeted. Temperatures fell to -18C overnight in Greater Manchester and Benson, Oxfordshire. At its coldest, the village of Benson was only 2C warmer than the South Pole.

What is road grit?

The most common material used to treat road surfaces prior to freezing conditions is rock salt. Rock salt is mined from underground mines. It is a brown colour because it is unrefined so it is often mistakenly referred to as grit.

Salt works by lowering the temperature at which water freezes. It relies on the action of vehicle tyres to be spread over the road, so requires traffic to be effective. Salt will work at temperatures down to minus 8-10 degrees C. Below that salted roads will still freeze.

Stone grit is only usually used on hardpacked snow and ice. In conditions where snow has already settled, grit can be mixed with salt up to a ratio of 50/50 to provide traction and help break up frozen surfaces.

Pre-wetted salt is salt that is mixed with water. It can come in a number of different forms and works at similar temperatures to rock salt. Pre-wetted salt can be spread more evenly and more quickly, cutting salt usage by up to 25%, and it gets to work faster as it doesn’t have to dissolve first. But the equipment needed to spread the material is more expensive.

Pad white salt – a waste product of table salt - can also be used as a de-icer, but it is more expensive and needs to be used in combination with rock salt and grit.

Some highways authorities also combine molasses, an agricultural by-product, with rock salt. This material is more expensive, but improves adhesion so that more of the salt mixture ends up on the road surface rather than spraying onto verges.

Other materials that help provide traction, such as sand can be effective in breaking up ice and providing traction, but most highways authorities do not consider them as suitable for use on roads. 

Other materials including potash or potassium chloride can also be effective as a de-icer, but is much more expensive, less widely available than salt and there are technical issues in spreading techniques that need to be overcome.

Readers' comments (9)

  • Why not use grit sand mixed with sea water. We have lots of grit but are running short on seawater. Oh! I am running short on money so I will not pay any council or road tax. However if I could afford fish and chips I would not put any salt on them. All my money goes in taxes. Pathetic or what?

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  • Studded Tyres for running on Ice, I believe that Studs are illegal.

    Why? Al the sevice vehicles should have them Police, Gritters, Snow ploughs,Ambulances, and also everyone else. Particularly in times of prolonged winter conditions. We are always caught out by winter conditions in Britain. How about the other countries who have much greater fall sof snow than us. THEY SEEM TO COPE MUCH BETTER THAN US. WHY?

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  • Because they get more regular snowfall and therefore have the infrastructure and supplies in place for it. It is not economical to do so in this country. If we did then Mr Pratt would need to pay even more in council tax to keep gritters idle and large unused salt supplies for 99% of the year.
    Perhaps we should take note of how reliant we are on travel and try and reduce our reliance on it (saving money and the environment), instead of paying large amounts of money to prepare for events that only happen once every 30 years or so.

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  • Studded tryes would only last 5 minutes. As soon as you hit slush, or a cleared road the studs would be ripped out.

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  • Anonymous, you don't know what you are talking about. I know of a Roads Maintenance Engineer who, several years ago, approached his local constabulary about using studded tyres in the winter. He was told that, given his job requirements, he could use them. The studs lasted more than one winter. The occasional one came out, but they were still functional.

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  • Studded tyres are illegal in this country (same with snow chains) on gritted roads because they destroy the road surface - which would then mean more complaints for potholes etc etc. For us to be able to use studded tyres / snow chains, it would mean the councils no longer gritting any roads and heightening the level at which the snow ploughs plough the roads (leaving a deeper layer of snow).

    Maybe next year they could spend the budget on reducing the costs of studded tyres or snow chains for every vehicle needing the use the roads, lightly plough to keep depths down and just not bothering with the grit.

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  • Studded tryes would only last 5 minutes. As soon as you hit slush, or a cleared road the studs would be ripped out.

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  • It is very easy to critisise. I find it hard to spell. We must try to help each other in these hard times. Pray to your God yet keep your powder dry.

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  • My local chip shop puts so much salt in a bag of chips that my hands usually itch for a few days afterwards. I have no doubt that, correctly trained, he could keep thousands of miles salted on his own. There must be many others the length and breadth of this great nation. Chip shops of the UK: unite and take your rightful place as our salt shaking saviours.

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