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Local government: Are we weather ready?

Have local authorities done enough to ensure the resilience of transport infrastructure as winter closes in? Jo Stimpson looks at how well the country could cope with a repeat of last year’s snowfall.

Snowstorms drifting in from Siberia. Blizzard conditions. The coldest and most extended winter for 30 years. Last winter’s bitterly cold weather is not easy to forget, and as December approaches the spectre of snow is looming again.

Arctic conditions gripped the UK from December 2009 onwards, and continued to plague Scotland and Northern Ireland into early April. It was transport infrastructure that suffered the most.

Ice on runways

Airports were forced to cancel services when workers could not clear runways of ice, with aircraft at London Heathrow and Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport sliding off runways; the rail network was severely disrupted; a number of highways were closed due to accidents or jacknifed lorries; and in London bus services were completely suspended for a period in February.

Councils were left scrambling for salt stocks, coming under fire for not de-icing enough while simultaneously being told to ration their salt use. To make matters worse, the weather has left a costly legacy on roads nationwide with a 40% increase in potholes.

It is a picture that nobody wants to see repeated. Salt Cell, a response unit led by the Department for Transport (DfT), was formed in early 2009 to guide salt suppliers on how to prioritise areas most in need. But it did not tell councils how best to employ their salt stocks, and was criticised for unfairly prioritising councils that had not prepared adequately. Salt Cell was a step in the right direction, but it was a flawed solution. As a result, a new review of winter resilience was commissioned.

“Economical use of stocks could actually lead to savings. Everybody’s very concerned they don’t get caught again”

David Quarmby, RAC Foundation

The results of the review - conducted by RAC Foundation chairman David Quarmby; former Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) president Brian Smith; and former Virgin Trains chief executive officer Chris Green - were published last month. Unsurprisingly, the availability of salt stocks was identified as the biggest problem.

The good news is that stocks will be high this winter. The Winter Resilience Review recommended in its July interim report that central government import 250,000t of salt as a one-off strategic reserve. Most of these stocks have already been secured. Even better, the likelihood of extreme snowfall this winter is low. “The chance of this winter being a severe one is still only one in 20,” Quarmby told NCE.

But a long-term solution still needs to be found. The review focused on two areas: supply and utilisation.
More efficient deployment of salt would “reduce both costs and dependence on a potentially vulnerable supply chain”, said the report.

However, no national standards for salt use exist. The review called for the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) to produce guidance, especially on spread rates.

“If you could make a 20% reduction in the amount of salt used, you could go some way towards closing the salt supply gap”

David Quarmby, RAC Foundation

Salt is usually spread at a rate of 20g/m², Quarmby says, but there is evidence from last winter that spreading more thinly “did not seem to impact the effectiveness with which highways were cleared”.

UK salt production capacity is simply unable to cater for a severe winter, the report said, falling short by some 900,000t. “If you can make a 20% reduction in the amount of salt used, you go some way towards closing that gap,” says Quarmby.

Frugal techniques

Frugal techniques are already used in some places. Pre-wetted salt - which is mixed with water, meaning it can be spread more evenly and quickly, cutting salt usage by up to 25% - is already in use by the Highways Agency and some local authorities. The Agency is also now using an innovative system on roads such as the A2, where sensors mounted on safety barriers monitor surface temperature and grip. An anti-freeze solution is then automatically sprayed onto the road, preventing the build up of ice before it happens.

However, many local authorities are wary of unconventional techniques for fear of legal retribution should accidents happen.

For that reason, Quarmby says the UKRLG must provide the technical underpinning to allow the use of lower spread rates in time for next winter.

The review also raised the benchmark for salt stocks from the previous 24 gritter runs - the amount needed for a council to do 24 sweeps of the roads in its area - to 48.

Severe weather can require up to four runs per day, so a 48 run benchmark allows for 12 days of extreme snow.

This change has been widely misreported as meaning councils should physically double their stocks

Complicated message

“It’s a slightly more complicated message than that,” says Quarmby. In fact, the benchmark refers to the salt to which a council has access, rather than how much it actually owns. “There are huge varieties in storage capacity,” says Quarmby. Those with lower capacity can make ‘mutual aid arrangements’ with neighbouring councils to share storage space, or to trade stocks as needed. Of course, a reduction in spread rates would also increase the number of runs possible.

London boroughs are an example of such an arrangement. The shortage of storage space in the city means a 25,000t strategic salt reserve has been established in Dagenham, from which all London authorities can draw stocks.

The government’s 250,000t of imported salt will ensure an average of 51 runs per council for this winter.

These are promising findings - but that is no guarantee they will be enacted. The UKRLG carried out its own review after the winter of 2008/09, making recommendations including an increase in salt stocks and joint storage facilities, but it was not enough to prevent the chaos of 2009/10.

And the Local Government Association (LGA) still remains sceptical of the new benchmark. “Salt suppliers are completely incapable of delivering on such a scale,” says LGA economy and transport board chairman Peter Box. On 1 October this year - the formal start of the gritting season - 18% of councils were still short on salt stocks by a median average of 1,700t.

And whether suppliers are capable or not, will local authorities be willing to prioritise winter resilience in this new era of austerity? Box doesn’t think so. “It will be nigh on impossible for councils to make more funds available when the overall budget for road maintenance is being cut by over £160M - the total sum spent annually on winter services,” he says.

The new benchmark is after all only a planning guide rather than a requirement. “Each of them will make their own decision,” says Quarmby. “There are clearly those who will have less than the 48 runs.” However, he says councils may find benefits to overhauling their salt plans. “What we’re saying is not likely to lead to an increase in spending,” he says. “Economical use of stocks could actually lead to savings. Everybody’s very concerned that they don’t get caught a third time.”

Fresh memories of last year’s chaos, together with central government intervention, have ensured good preparation for this winter. But future resilience will require an overhaul of how councils source, store and utilise salt in the long term.

The real test of local authorities’ commitment in the long term will come not this winter, but in 2011/12.

Local government: Are we weather ready?

Readers' comments (1)

  • Barry Walton

    Totally absent from the discussion above seems to be a message that if we get a massive dump of snow, people would be better placed staying at home and riding out the couple of days they cannot move about as freely as in 'situation normal' (or, if you like, situation luxurious). Play with the kids, get to know your neighbours, clear your footpath without the fear of prosecution. (Have we really sunk so low that a Council attempting to introduce new technology to be more affective feels a threat from the law in doing so? Maybe they should they be worrying about poluting groundwater with salt and an action by the EA). What else might we do? Gag the press on its wild reporting of impending disaster might help. What really was the impact on Britain of last winter's snow in the greater perspective of things? Worse than the Blitz? A small fraction of the dust from our Icelandic friends? Less than England's performance in the Word Cup? In places like Canada, to which we look with envy, they bring down the barriers and put up signs 'Road closed by snow' - for the next three months.

    B Walton (F)

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