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Roads abandoned as death traps as salt shortage hits crisis levels

Vast swathes of Britain’s highways network is now to remain untreated as the national salt shortage forces the Highways Agency and local authorities to take drastic steps to conserve supplies.

The Highways Agency has been forced to abandon hard shoulder running on the M42 during snow storms and has instructed its contractors to abandon treating hard shoulders wherever possible.

And councils nationwide are to scrap salt spreading services on secondary networks and focus on published priority networks.

With yet more snowfall predicted across the UK on Monday and Tuesday the AA said the lack of salt was now endangering lives.

The AA said on Sunday that several local authorities have either run out of salt or have such low stock levels that very few roads are being gritted. The worst areas appear to be in Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Derbyshire and parts of Wales.

The AA is concerned that with weather forecasts showing another 4or 5 days of freezing temperatures and snow that many roads will become death traps.

The Local Government Association denied that councils had run out of salt but said that in some parts of the country authorities will have to prioritise key roads rather than attempt to salt or grit all roads.

"As far as we are aware, there are no councils who have completely run out of supplies,” said the LGA in a statement. "There is careful monitoring of the situation to ensure that this continues. All local authorities are advised to keep in very close contact with their regional government offices to make sure they have the most up to date information about the situation in their area."

The Highways Agency has issued an urgent instruction to its supply chain to cut salt usage with stocks at “critically low levels” and told suppliers with stocks to expect them to be seized for use elsewhere on the network.

"Due to the prolonged spell of cold weather in December and January, and the current widespread snow, road salt stocks held by the Highways Agency and local authorities are at extremely low levels.

"With the salt industry unable to meet all current demands by a considerable margin it is essential that with immediate effect service providers actively consider and where appropriate implement measures to reduce the amount of salt used.

"Service providers should not assume that the salt stocks that they currently hold will stay with them as there are other Highways Agency areas and Local Highway Authorities with critically low levels,” said the instruction, signed by director of network operations Derek Turner.

The instruction orders contractors to:

- Reduce the spread rate when ploughing from 20 to 10g/m2.
- Abandon the Hard Shoulder running on the M42 during snow events and when temperatures are low
- Abandon the treatment of hard shoulders in Areas 3, 6, 8 and 10 where gritters can be adjusted to treat the running lanes only.
- Introduce patrols to direct treatment. This allows focused treatment and the best use of salt stocks by avoiding the possibility of unnecessary treatment based on inaccurate weather forecasts
- Review the priorities for footway and cycleway treatment in discussion and in a consistent manner with local authorities.

Similar instructions have been handed out by local authorities body the CSS. Engineering committee chair Matthew Lugg said it was “paramount” that existing salt supplies are optimised.

Lugg has told authorities that it is “strongly recommended” that all CSS members adopt the following actions:

- To consider no longer providing a salt spreading service on secondary networks but continue to concentrate on published priority networks, which are generally A and B and some heavily trafficked C roads.
- On minor roads where compacted snow and ice lies it is still possible to provide a service without the application of salt by spreading grit only. This will provide traction and help break up the frozen surfaces.
- To ensure all spreaders are correctly calibrated and that calibration checks are undertaken as soon as possible to make certain that these vehicles are spreading the prescribed rates.
- For general precautionary salting to reduce spread at rates to 15g/m2 for salt stored in the open and10g/m2 for salt stored under cover
- To make use of all available technology such as salt sensors to check salinity levels and where there is adequate residual salt on the road then not to provide further treatment.
- In conditions where snow has already settled on the carriageway consideration should be given to mixing salt and grit (single size abrasive aggregate not exceeding 6mm or 5mm sharp sand) to ratio of up to 50/50.
- Where larger highway authorities have potentially different climate domains consideration should be given to partial network treatment rather than blanket cover when appropriate.
- In circumstances where roads may be dry in places but have areas of moisture through snow melting or seepage on the carriageway then spot salting could be considered rather than full precautionary runs.

AA president Edmund King said highway authorities were “running on empty” as regards their salt stocks.

"Many are desperate to re-stock their road salt but supply chain pressures from mine to highway depot looks like resulting in some areas running dry – this is a very serious situation with some roads becoming death traps.

"The Government should step in to assess the situation and ensure that salt stocks are maintained in the places at immediate risk from snow and ice over the coming days – this will require a joined-up approach including the Met Office, Local Government Association and other agencies. If needs be the Government should import emergency stocks of salt from Holland to ensure that a safe network of roads and pavements is maintained.

"Top priority must be our strategic roads, the motorways and trunk roads, but the Highways Agency appears to be confident it can meet the challenge. However, it is so frustrating to have motorways and trunk roads working, if key local roads cannot feed traffic on and off them safely – it is therefore essential that no local highway authority runs out of road salt.

"It is impractical to grit all roads and pavements but with extreme ice a higher percentage should be gritted – there are still some incredibly dangerous roads and pavements out there. Just because it is a residential road doesn't mean cars will not crash into other parked cars."

The LGA said central government was consulting with the LGA and the Highways Agency with the aim of providing advice to suppliers on the most effective distribution of available salt supplies in order to minimise the risk to public safety. Daily reports based on data from local authorities will advise suppliers of those in greatest need, with prioritisation based on daily demand estimates and comparisons between existing salt stocks and available supply.

“These calculations will be run daily, based on updated stock information and Met Office forecasts, to provide advice to suppliers regarding the next day’s distribution. Given the importance of the strategic road network, not least to ensuring continued deliveries of salt, if Highways Agency supplies appear likely to dip below a prudent level, further advice from the Secretary of State will be sought on how to proceed,” said the LGA in a statement.

“We expect these arrangements to continue only for as long as the current exceptionally severe weather conditions remain in place and it is important that councils supply stock information when requested. Once gritting levels return to normal for the time of year and stocks are able to be rebuilt, the advice to suppliers on distribution will cease.”

The Highways Agency confirmed its contractors were beginning to hand over salt to hard-pressed local authorities.

"This is a short term measure to ensure that stocks go to where they are most required, and we will review the situation after the weekend.
In the last week the Highways Agency has used around 75,000 tonnes of salt on the strategic road network in England. This compares to an average winter week last year when we used approximately 10,000 tonnes of salt each week,” said Turner.

“The Highways Agency is working closely with local authorities to coordinate the supply of salt between different areas in order to help keep the most important local roads open."

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