Heavy snowfall over the past two winters has caused chaos on UK roads. Bernadette Redfern looks at what more must be done to keep the country moving.
More from: Pass us the salt
February 2009 was disastrous for the UK road network. Prolonged snow and freezing temperatures led to councils running out of salt, roads abandoned, public transport failing to operate, the Highways Agency rationing its own salt supplies and the AA warning that lives were at risk.
The salt shortage became so severe that an emergency response unit led by the Department for Transport (DfT), the Salt Cell, was established to ensure that salt companies were sending supplies to areas most in need.
“We have got to think further ahead, local authorities have got to put their hands in their pockets earlier.”
Matthew Lugg, UKRLG
The country’s poor performance led transport secretary Lord Adonis to call for a review of winter maintenance procedures and he instructed the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) to carry this out.
The group was made up of senior members of local highways authorities, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Assembly, Transport Scotland, the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat and the Highways Agency. Consultant Atkins supported the group in its research.
It began the study immediately. “We worked very hard last summer. We met six times in the space of two to three months. We met our target and produced that report at the end of July,” says UKRLG chairman and Leicestershire County Council director of transportation Matthew Lugg.
“The reason we wanted to get it done in July is that there may have been scope to have some influence over this winter,” he says.
The result was an extensive review of the events of February 2009 with 19 recommendations on how to ensure the country’s roads stay open and safe in future winters. Many of these, nine in total, referred to salt supply management and recommended not only that councils hold more, but that they change the nature of their contracts with suppliers and even set up joint storage facilities with other councils.
But just 10 months later the same problems have beset the UK’s roads with fatal consequences. Freezing conditions once again swept in, affecting most parts of the country.
In December two coach passengers died in Cornwall when their vehicle skidded on an untreated road, crashed and overturned. The road at Godolphin Bridge in Townshend, Hayle was not salted and NCE reported that only 20%, or 1,400km, of the county’s roads had been treated (NCE 7 January).
As the icy weather continued, local authorities once again began to run out of salt and the government’s Salt Cell was activated to direct salt supplies to those most in need.
Why the repeated failings?
So why, when the UKRLG had made such an extensive and speedy review of the failings, was the situation being repeated?
“It was publicised but I don’t think everyone was aware that it was available. It was shared through the local authority network but I think it was unfortunate that the government didn’t endorse it until 15 December. If it had given it the profile it could have had more impact,” says Lugg.
However, the government, which demanded the review in the first place, refuses to take the blame. It says that local authorities were given access to the document at the same time as the DfT. “Most of the UKRLG’s recommendations were addressed to local highways authorities and salt suppliers − and it was for each of these to consider how to take them on board and they have had the opportunity to do this since the summer when the report was published,” says a DfT spokesman.
On 11 January Adonis made a statement which said: “Recommendations that were made to central government were adopted immediately and in full. There were recommendations to local authorities as well, on which individual authorities were expected to act.”
A key recommendation was that local highways authorities should keep at least six days of salt stocks, and that over and above this the Highways Agency should hold an additional strategic supply to underpin national resilience. “To this end, the Highways Agency came into this winter period with a 13 day supply of salt, subject of course to replenishment,” says Adonis.
Unfortunately some authorities clearly did not act on the findings and lessons from the report must be learned now more than ever.
“We have got to think further ahead, local authorities have got to put their hands in their pockets earlier,” says Lugg. “They can’t be relying on re-stocking in winter. There needs to be discussion from local authorities on what is reasonable in light of this year’s winter. Stocks may need to be higher.”
Salt cell: How it works
Government offices around the country collect current salt stock data and send it to the Department for Transport.
This is compared against weather reports from the Met Office and a forecast model is simulated which highlights the areas that are most in need of salt. This is then passed on to suppliers as advice so that the salt firms have a clear picture of who needs the salt most.
“The government can’t instruct the firms to send salt as that would be interfering with the contractual arrangements that the companies have with their suppliers. It can only give advice,” says Wilmington.
The cell has been collating data on a Monday and Thursday and issuing advice to suppliers on Tuesdays and Fridays. Places struggling include the southern region, the Pennines and north Yorkshire. South Wales and north east Scotland are also affected.
Although the minimum amount of salt recommended in the UKRLG report is six days’ heavy salting, other organisations recommend a higher level.
The Salt Association recommends 14 days and in the US the American Salt Association recommends councils stock 100% of the average winter requirement.
“We keep enough for 100 gritting days. In bad weather we will use it more rapidly as we double spread so at that rate we keep 50 days’ treatment,” says Devon County Council head of roads and fellow UKRLG member Lester Wilmington.
“In a normal winter we would use 10,000t to 12,000t of salt, this winter we will use 20,000t. We have spread 17,000t since the end of November. Before Christmas we checked stocks and put an order in for 4,300t, which came before New Year.”
Sharing the wealth
Devon’s conservative planning means that it has been able to assist other councils under a system known as mutual aid.
“We have been able to help other local authorities under mutual aid agreements and have placed another two orders for 9,000t and 6,000t. At the moment we have enough for two more treatments for at least seven days and 1,000t is coming this week,” says Wilmington.
As is recommended in the report, Devon uses a network of salt suppliers giving it more confidence that deliveries will be made. “One of the things the report identified was that a lot of authorities had single short-term contracts with suppliers and what we advocated was to get better resilience by using alternatives so that there are back up suppliers if one can’t deliver,” says Lugg.
However, as there are only three salt suppliers in the UK, framework contracts alone will not solve the problem.
If all deliveries are left to the last minute, as has happened in 2009 and 2010, the firms Irish Salt Sales, Salt Union and Cleveland Potash, will still struggle to meet demand.
Other suggestions made by the report include councils setting up joint storage facilities holding extra supplies, improving communications between local authorities, key services and salt suppliers and authorities working together more closely on general winter planning.
Despite the failure of some authorities to act on the report’s findings, Lugg and Wilmington are confident that more will be done. “There will be more activity this summer,” says Wilmington. “There is a lot of work to be done to get stocks up. We can’t allow this to happen again.
After the snow
Potholes caused by the recent severe weather conditions are now beginning to appear across the country’s road network as the freezing weather begins to thaw.
The worst weather conditions for 30 years have left roads exposed to a condition known as “freeze-thaw”, which damages the roads in wet and particularly freezing conditions. Water in cracks in the road expands into ice causing the surface of the road to break up and deeper than usual potholes to form.
The public is being asked to report any defects they spot to their local authority so that they can be fixed as quickly as possible.
Potholes are “gaping sores” in our road network, says Local Government Association transport board chairman David Sparks. “The wet combined with the freezing conditions destroys tarmac quickly. As the ice seeps into the road it expands and rips chunks of the surface out leaving potholes blighting the highways.”
“After the snow comes the repairs and councils are working flat out to keep drivers safe by fixing the holes as quickly as possible. However, some ground is now waterlogged, meaning the bituminous material will not stick. Temporary solutions will be used where necessary.”
ICE vice president Geoff French says the thaw of treacherous icy roads could bring little respite, with drivers having to cope with increasing numbers of potholes.
Snow and ice, together with freezing temperatures, can also cause deterioration of footpaths and pavements, meaning attention will have to be focused on fixing these as well.
Street Scene director Bill Batey adds: “This severe weather period which has lasted for almost four weeks, has inevitably had an effect on the road surface and we are already seeing an increase in the number and size of potholes from what we would expect over a normal winter period.”
A record number of potholes were filled last year − 968,195 − with councils mending a hole, on average, every 33 seconds, according to new analysis published by the Local Government Association.